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FOCUS March 2017 Volume 87

Central Asia: Human Rights Issues


Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan comprise the subregion of Central Asia. They are all member-states of the United Nations, and have ratified or acceded to a number of human rights treaties as shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Ratified/Acceded to Human Rights Treaties1

Human Rights
Kazakhstan Tajikistan Turkmenistan Uzbekistan Kyrgystan
 1. CAT A A A A A
 2. CAT-OP R - - - A
 3. CCPR R A A A A
 4. CCPR-
- - A A A
 5. CED A - - - -
 7. CERD A A A A A
 9. CMW - R - - A
 10. CRC R A A A A
 11. CRC-
 12. CRC-
 13. CRPD R - A Signed Signed

  Note: R – ratification; A – accession

The United Nations human rights treaty monitoring bodies examined the reports of the five countries during the 2015-2016 period. Below are some issues raised in the Concluding Observations issued by the human rights treaty monitoring bodies. 

The Human Rights Committee (HRC)  issued in 2016 its Concluding Observations on the reports of Kazakhstan.3 Following are some of the issues raised by the HRC.

On counterterrorism, the HRC was concerned about the broad formulation of the concepts of “extremism”, “inciting social or class hatred” and “religious hatred or enmity” under Kazakhstan’s criminal legislation and the use of such legislation on extremism to unduly restrict freedoms of religion, expression, assembly and association.

The HRC was also concerned about the closely related issue of freedom of expression. It noted the “laws and practices that violate freedom of opinion and expression, including: (a) the extensive application of criminal law provisions to individuals exercising their right to freedom of expression, including provisions on the broadly formulated offence of incitement to ‘social, national, clan, class or religious discord’, defamation, insult, public insult or other encroachment on the honour and dignity of the President of Kazakhstan, public insult of a State official by the mass media or information communication networks, and dissemination of information known to be false; (b) the blocking of social media, blogs, news sites and other Internet-based resources on national security grounds, including by using Law No. 200-V of 23 April 2014, which entrusts the Prosecutor General or his deputies with the ability to shut down or suspend a network or means of communication and access to Internet resources without a court order; (c) interference with professional journalistic activity and the shutting down of independent newspapers and magazines, television channels and news websites for reportedly minor irregularities or on extremism-related charges.”

On death penalty, the HRC, while noting the moratorium on executions in force since 2003 and the objective of gradually reducing the grounds for imposition of the death penalty, was concerned that the new Criminal Code enacted on 1 January 2015 maintained the death penalty for seventeen types of crime. 

On prisons and torture, the HRC noted the

a. high number of “suicides and deaths in prisons, remand centres and temporary holding facilities;”
b. exclusion of  acts of torture committed by “all persons acting in an official capacity” in the coverage of the law on torture and the non-recognition of the “physical and mental suffering caused as a result of ‘legal actions’ of civil servants;”
c. “high rate of torture and the high number of claims of torture dismissed at threshold due to the allegedly excessive evidentiary standard required to pursue an investigation under the new Criminal Procedure Code;”
d. “reported unduly prolonged duration of investigations into allegations of torture and/or ill-treatment;”
e. “very low rate of effective prosecution, the mild punishments imposed and the involvement of interested law enforcement agencies in investigating allegations of torture or ill-treatment;”
f. practice of automatically charging unsuccessful complainants of torture or ill-treatment with the crime of “false reporting of a crime;” and
g. failure to provide full reparation to victims of torture or ill- treatment. 

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and Committee against Torture (CAT) reviewed the reports of Turkmenistan in 2016. Below are some of the issues raised in the Concluding Observations of CAT.4 The report of CERD could not be accessed at the moment, thus the discussion below refers only to the CAT report.
CAT raised concern on many issues regarding detention or imprisonment: 
a. “consistent allegations of widespread torture and ill-treatment, including severe beatings, of persons deprived of their liberty, especially at the moment of apprehension and during pretrial detention, mainly in order to extract confessions.” CAT noted the lack of cases against those alleged to have committed torture;
b. “long-term incommunicado detention, a practice that amounts to enforced disappearance and violates the Convention” for a number of people (including Boris and Konstantin Shikhmuradov, Batyr Berdyev and Rustam Dzhumayev);
c. “serious acts of intimidation, reprisals, threats and arbitrary arrests and imprisonment of human rights defenders and journalists in retaliation for their work, and of their relatives, as well as numerous reports that such persons have been subjected to torture and ill-treatment while in detention;”
d. “deaths in custody owing to torture and about the State party’s failure to ensure independent forensic examinations of such deaths;”
e. “persons deprived of their liberty [were not enjoying] in practice … all fundamental legal safeguards against torture from the moment of their apprehension;”
f. “use of solitary confinement and the reduced regime for persons placed in solitary confinement, which has resulted in mental health problems and suicides;”
g. “inadequate material and hygienic conditions in places of deprivation of liberty, including continued severe overcrowding, inadequate bathing and toilet facilities, lack of access to an adequate quantity and quality of food, natural and artificial lighting, proper ventilation and health care, lack of outdoor activities and unnecessary restrictions on family visits continued during the period under review,” and that the “supervision of conditions of detention in detention facilities [was] not within the remit of judicial bodies;” 
h. “physical abuse and psychological pressure against detainees by prison staff, including ill-treatment, collective punishment and sexual violence, including rape, which have resulted in several suicides;” and
i. “prevalence of violence against women in the State party, including in penitentiary facilities, and at the low number of complaints, investigations and prosecutions in this regard.”
The Human Rights Committee (HRC) issued its Concluding Observations on the fourth periodic report of Uzbekistan on 17 August 2015. The HRC noted the issues regarding women:
a. lack of progress in adopting a law on equal rights and opportunities for women and men;
b. violence against women, including domestic violence, continued to be regarded as a family matter; there was no law criminalizing domestic violence and marital rape; and law enforcement officers lacked due diligence in registering and investigating such complaints and owing to the absence of adequate and sufficient protection measures and support services for victims, including medical, social and legal services, as well as accommodation or shelters; and
c. continued practice of forced and early marriage and bride abductions, especially in rural areas, and persistence of de facto polygamy, despite the legal prohibition against such practices. 
The HRC noted that the definition of torture contained in the criminal legislation, including Article 235 of the Criminal Code, did not meet the requirements of Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as it was limited to illegal acts committed with the purpose of coercing testimony and therefore in practice was restricted to acts of torture committed only by a person carrying out an initial inquiry or pretrial investigation, a procurator or other employee of a law enforcement agency, and results in impunity for other persons, including detainees and prisoners. The HRC was also concerned that Uzbekistan continued to grant amnesties to persons who had been convicted of torture or ill-treatment under Article 235 of the Criminal Code. 
It also noted the numerous reports of abuses, including beatings by prison guards and other prisoners, poor conditions of detention, inadequate medical care and imposition of long and physically demanding working hours, disproportionately affecting human rights defenders, government critics and individuals convicted of membership in Islamist parties and groups. The HRC was also concerned about the lack of a national independent mechanism mandated to regularly monitor and inspect all places of detention without prior notice, and about obstacles to the proper functioning of independent national and international human rights and humanitarian organizations.
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) in reviewing the Tajikistan reports during the first quarter of 2015 raised a number of issues regarding the realization of economic, social and cultural rights.5
CESCR lauded the existence of a number of laws on some pressing issues, such as the following:
a. Law on Prevention of Domestic Violence (2013);  
b. Amendments to the Refugee Law (2013); 
c. Social Protection for Persons with Disabilities Act (2010);  and
d. Commissioner for Human Rights Act (2008). 
However, CESCR also observed that other issues lacked or had inadequate laws. It noted the lack of comprehensive anti-discrimination law and the partial and fragmented character of existing legal provisions; and the lack of legal protection of women against all forms of direct and indirect discrimination and harassment.  
CESCR pointed out that the 2010 Law on Social Protection of Persons with Disabilities did not provide a clear definition of persons with disabilities and that the classification of disability, based on the degree of lost ability to work, has led to exclusion from employment of persons with disabilities. It cited the lack of a clear definition in legislation of the informal economy, which accounts for a very large portion of the total workforce in Tajikistan, making it difficult to assess the situation of workers in the informal economy and to develop effective policies to ensure the protection of their rights under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Articles 7 and 8). 
It noted that domestic violence had not been criminalized and remained prevalent in the country. It was concerned about underreporting of cases of domestic violence, while those reported were not adequately investigated, and perpetrators often avoided punishment.  
On children, the CESCR pointed out several concerns:
a. Large number of children (approximately 200,000), mostly from single-parent families and migrant worker families, were involved in child labor, 13 per cent of them were working in dangerous conditions and 10 per cent never attended school;
b. Lack of family- or community-based care for children with disabilities and children without parental care, which resulted in their being placed in institutional care;
c. High dropout rates among girls and children from families in disadvantaged situations, and about the gender disparity in enrolment and retention rates across all levels of education;
d. Poor quality of education due to lack of qualified teachers and of teaching materials, low teachers’ salaries and poor condition of educational infrastructure and facilities; and
e. Decreasing number of classes provided in the languages of ethnic minorities and of students attending schools where the teaching is given in the languages of ethnic minorities, owing to the insufficient number of teachers, the lack of retraining programs for teachers and a shortage of textbooks in minority languages.
CESCR was also concerned about the lack of reasonable accommodation of persons with disabilities, including physical accessibility to buildings and facilities, particularly schools and health-care clinics.
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESR) issued in 2015 its Concluding Observations on the reports of Kyrgyzstan.6
The CESCR was concerned that women were not enjoying equal rights in the areas of economic, social and cultural rights because they were
a. “predominantly employed in lower-paid sectors and positions;”
b. not entitled to “all the rights in the Family Code or from alimony and other forms of support in the event of marriage dissolution” for the “significant number of marriages, particularly those under religious law,  [that were] not formally registered;”
c. “unable to prove guardianship of their children [in cases of unregistered marriage] without their husband’s confirmation, which, inter alia, hinders the children’s residence registration, thus obstructing their access to basic services;” 
d. given “unequal access to property and inheritance;” and
e. frequently denied application for “land plots.”
There was prevalent bride kidnapping of “both women and underage girls” who were “often left with the kidnapper by their families for economic reasons or because the bride is considered to be tainted.”  There was also concern about the “bride [being] considered to belong to her husband’s family, which had the power to hamper her access to education and employment.”
The CESCR raised its concern about the high number of homeless people and the absence of a plan to address their housing needs. There were also “disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups who face[d] an acute risk of homelessness, especially persons living in poverty, women single heads of households, persons with disabilities, migrants, children who [were] leaving institutions and former detainees.”
It also raised the issue of health and environment due to the “high level of industrial pollution” such as “ground contamination resulting from uranium tailings, toxic waste dumps and burial sites for pesticides that are persistent organic pollutants;” “continuing import of obsolete, prohibited or poor-quality pesticides;” and the proximity of a residential area to the place where cattle which died of anthrax were buried. The low level of awareness about this issue complicated the situation.

Final Note
The Concluding Observations raised many more human rights issues on the five countries of Central Asia. The discussion above illustrates what the United Nations human rights bodies have been urging member-states to give appropriate attention to in compliance with their obligation under the human rights treaties that they have ratified or acceded to. These issues, among many other issues, are certainly not limited to these Central Asian countries.

For further information, please contact HURIGHTS OSAKA.

1 Ratification/accession status taken from United Nations Human Rights,
2 Terms used:
CAT - Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
CAT-OP - Optional Protocol of the Convention against Torture
CCPR - International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
CCPR-OP2-DP - Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming at the abolition of the death penalty
CED - Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance
CEDAW - Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
CERD - International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
CESCR - International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
CMW - International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families
CRC - Convention on the Rights of the Child
CRC-OP-AC - Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict
CRC-OP-SC - Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography
CRPD - Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
CRC-OP-AC - Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict
CRPD - Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
3 Human Rights Committee, Concluding observations on the second periodic report of Kazakhstan, CCPR/C/KAZ/CO/2, 9 August 2016.
4 Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, List of themes in relation to the combined eighth to eleventh periodic reports of Turkmenistan, CERD/C/TKM/Q/8-11, 7 October 2016 and Committee against Torture, Concluding observations on the second periodic report of Turkmenistan, CAT/C/TKM/CO/2, 23 January 2017.
5 Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Concluding observations on the combined second and third periodic reports of Tajikistan, E/C.12/TJK/CO/2-3, 25 March 2015.
6 Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Concluding observations on the combined second and third periodic reports of Kyrgyzstan, E/C.12/KGZ/CO/2-3, 7 July 2015.