Human Rights Watch Not a Fan of Kazakhstan’s “Ugly Trade”

by Joshua Foust on 12/3/2008 · 10 comments

(For context, see previous coverage here, here, and here)

Just before the OSCE Ministerial Council meeting on December 4 and 5 in Helsinki, Kazakhstan is facing condemnation from Human Rights Watch over its human rights record, and HRW has published a 55-page study of the situation. HRW says Kazakhstan, which is scheduled to chair the elections-monitoring board, has put proposals into legislation “unlikely to result in meaningful and needed reform in media and electoral freedoms.” HRW also mentions that Kazakhstan has a problem with religious liberty, speech rights, and freedom of assembly. This they refer to as “An Atmosphere of Quiet Repression.”

Okay. I don’t mean to defend Kazakhstan’s human rights record, which is nothing to brag about, but does it make sense to rely on local and foreign minority religious groups to define a “national media campaign” against them in preparation for an as-yet undefined law restriction religious practices? HRW doesn’t seem to be saying it investigated and found credible these claims, merely that certain missionary groups believe this is happening.

Similarly, the journalists HRW interviewed said they dare not cover certain subjects for fear of censorship or legal intimidation. They also note that unlawful protests (with the obvious caveat that all protests are unlawful) are met with fines and 10 days’ imprisonment.

I could seriously be off here, but am I alone in thinking Human Rights Watch is hyperventilating over this? I mean, both north and south of Kazakhstan are vastly more egregious human rights offenders. While that should not excuse Kazakhstan—especially given its position as future Chair of the OSCE—I suspect that a more reasoned, and less rumor-laden, report could actually spur some sort of positive response. As it is, complaining that activist missionaries feel put out and legislation might not pass quickly enough for 55 pages seems a bit slim.

Other Considerations: If Eurasianet is to be believed, and that can be a bit of an “if,” then the OSCE meeting will be focusing on European security anyway. When Georgie bombed South Ossetia, the OSCE building in Tskhinvali took damage and has remained closed. By the Russians’ and Georgians’ account, the upcoming ministerial meeting will focus on treaties and other 100% binding documents that should regulate how OSCE members relate to each other. It does not strike me as an appropriate forum in which to rail against Kazakhstan’s (possibly theoretical) human rights lapses.

The whole point may be moot anyway: Kazakhstan has agreed to host U.S. and NATO aircraft in the event of an emergency. It is doubtful that the U.S. would jeopardize such access over an intimidation campaign.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Dolkun December 4, 2008 at 12:41 am

I think you’re understating the degree of certainty about the new religious law. The provisions have been widely discussed, and they don’t look good. And HRW seems to be basing its analysis of the law and official position on presidential statements and decrees, as well as the draft law itself.

While I’m no fan of missionaries (not as people but for what they do), defending freedom of anything, including religion, means defending minority views, no?

On the media law, the draft is out, and while it is a step in the right direction, it is a baby step, possibly intended to deflect criticism as much as advance media freedom.

Peter December 4, 2008 at 2:39 am

Criticism of the law on religion is extremely widespread and has been criticized by many faith groups from all difference quarters (see Forum18 coverage to get the full idea). The media campaign is also not imagined by some disgruntled religious minorities, as you seem to imply. It has been sustained and unpleasant.
Incidentally, you must not have read the HRW report too closely since the most vociferous critics of the legislation are not in fact religious minorities, but highly respected rights activists (Evgeniy Zhovtis, director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, Roman Podoprigora, law professor at the Caspian Public University, and Ninel Fokina, chair of the Almaty Helsinki Committee).
That you cavil over the fact that the details of the law are not yet defined also misses the obvious point completely. It is shocking that such sensitive legislation was drawn and passed (all that is missing is the president’s signature at this stage), with no real effort to consult stakeholders. Even the Russians couldn’t quite pull that off, not that they wouldn’t try.
Last and not least on this issue, the OSCE legal review of the law on religion was roundly criticized (this is known, although Kazakh authorities have flatly refused to reveal the findings to the public), and yet it was flagrantly ignored. It would be good to revise the evolution of this law and how Kazakh authorities have shamelessly been cocking a snook at the OSCE over this to see how disgraceful this all this.
Similar problems are evident in all the other Central Asian states, but none of those countries have been elevated to the post of chairman of the OSCE. Whatever you might think of that organization _ which is a rather more than the elections-monitoring board you describe it as _ you can be certain that Astana will ceaselessly crow about how its new role at its helm legitimizes the political choices it has adopted over the past few years.
Anyway, the religion law is something of a distraction. Dolkun is on the mark in defining the media law recently passed by the lower house (not to speak of the election law and political parties law) as baby steps. The problem is that these pathetic laws are nothing but a smokescreen and almost certainly unlikely to lead to anything more firm.
The main impact of changes to the media law is to give journalists the right to use dictaphones when interviewing officials and gives them supposed nominal guarantees in lawsuits (although how that will work in practice will yet be seen). In the meantime, the editor of an Almaty newspaper sought political refuge in the U.S. embassy and the general prosecutors has threatened any newspapers using the Aliyev wiretaps with legal action (i.e. jail). The state is mullin creating another media-holding under its control and no opposition representative gets so much as a sniff at television coverage. Again, in Russia, no beacon of democracy, looks like a paragon of media freedom in these terms.
The only real significance of the political legislation is that Nazarbayev has decreed that in the next round of parliamentary elections (which may well be held after 2010), more than one party will be represented in the parliament. Well, whoopee-doo! Kazakhstan will be just like Uzbekistan then if all goes well.
You are right, Kazakhstan is not Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, but neither of those countries gets quite as fawned over and bestowed such international legitimacy by enfeebled Western politicians. Kazakhstan’s OSCE chairmanship sends the wrong message: to Astana, which realizes it can indefinitely refuse to implement a genuinely democratic change in political culture and procedure; to other anti-democratically disposed nations, who will realise that they need only learn to play the game without actually reforming; and to the Kazakh people, who will grow disillusioned with Western hypocrisy.
To dismiss out-of-hand restrictions on political, religious and media freedoms with little evident actual knowledge of the situation in Kazakhstan as “theoretical human rights lapses” is pretty unfortunate bearing all the above in mind.
Finally, on a point of information, the reason the OSCE Ministerial Council in Helsinki _is_ the right forum in which to rail against Kazakhstan is that is where its chairmanship in 2010 will ultimately be confirmed.

Matthew December 4, 2008 at 2:56 am

Even though I can probably guess the answer, I’ll ask anyway – what’s your beef with Eurasianet?

Joshua Foust December 4, 2008 at 5:54 am

Matthew, it’s nothing serious, just the same beef I have with any other organization whose funding comes from a hyper-wealthy ideologue (i.e. I apply the same beef to something like the Washington Times). It doesn’t mean it’s untrue by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s also important to keep in mind that they’re not exactly impartial.

Peter and Dolkun, your comments are well taken, and I can see how the chairmanship makes these things worth getting worked up over. Like I said, I could be off, and I probably am, reading what your takes are. However, I’ll caution this with the same caveat that our other discussions of human rights on have had—you gain a lot by having a sense of proportion. On their webpage, HRW has this organized in equally dire terms to their report on the violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and it is written quite breathlessly. I don’t deny Kazakhstan has problems (I never have), but there are degrees of bad here, and that’s more the point I’m trying to get at.

Peter December 4, 2008 at 7:05 am


Fair enough, although I can assure you that suggesting to a Kazakh that they should be measured by the same yardstick as the Congo would be enough to send them into an apoplectic fit.
The question of standards here is central; Kazakhstan has nominally joined the club of “respectable Western nations” but refuses cynically and dishonestly to subscribe to its standards in anything but word. There are degrees of bad, as you say, but you need to understand that political freedoms and diversity in Kazakhstan are arguably worse than Russia _ which is appalling, disconcerting and profoundly depressing. Astana’s feet must be kept to the fire and the HRW acquits itself quite respectably in that task.

Joshua Foust December 4, 2008 at 7:45 am

“I can assure you that suggesting to a Kazakh that they should be measured by the same yardstick as the Congo would be enough to send them into an apoplectic fit.”

That’s exactly my point (which I’ve said now several times). HRW treats the situation in Kazakhstan as morally equivalent to the DRC. I state quite explicitly in the post that they would get a better response being more reasoned and calm in how they report on this. Again, I am not excusing Kazakhstan, but degrees of bad matter quite seriously. HRW skirts close to trivializing human rights problem by treating them all as the same — it’s like declaring everything the holocaust. Soon the term means nothing, and we lose the ability to describe an actual holocaust.

Dolkun December 5, 2008 at 3:00 am

Since you’ve said it several times, what’s the basis for the declaration that HRW sees moral equivalence in the DNC and RoKz? Should HRW color-code their reports? The title “quiet repression” rather than being alarmist, actually sounds like the kind of repression one might prefer.

Oldschool Boy December 13, 2008 at 5:44 am

As during Wild West period people and companies urged to mark territories to establish property rights forever, main religious confessions in Kazakhstan want to share people’s souls among them and establish their rights over these souls forever. It is simple, kazakhs, uzbeks, uigurs, chechens will be forever muslim, russians and part of ukranians will be orthodox christian, juish will be juish, germans will be baptists, etc. It is first come first served principle. There are not enough souls for every confession. But then there will be no fight, every chirch has its own fare share. That is the main logic behind the low.
In reality the only logic behind the low is Fear.
There have never been any religious discrimination in Kazakhstan, nor hostility between the different religions or confessions. Mainly because people do not care. Kazakhs have never been as devout muslims as arabs or even uzbeks. Russians are not very deeply religious christians. I woul say that about 70-80% or even more of those people in Kazakhstan who consider themselves muslim or christian do not go to mosques or churches. More like atheists. People are comfortable with this. No religious fights, no terrorists, no pogroms. But then some cult comes from abroad and start taking young souls. It makes people nervous, may be beside religious words the young people receive Kalashnikovs. New cults make people fanatic, meaning angry and hostile. Government proacts. No Al-Kaedas, no Aum Senrike, no Hisb-ut-Tahir. Period.

Michael Hancock December 14, 2008 at 12:27 pm

Oldschool Boy, your opinions on religion would be stranger to me if I hadn’t lived in Kazakhstan. But they seem to reflect growing up in a society without freedom of religion and expression. Religion is not an extension of ethnicity.

Religions don’t “take souls.” They try to explain the world and give hope for the afterlife. Conversion of children is the real problem, I think. I agree with Kazakhstan that religious education should be kept out of public schools, but adults should be able to study and convert to any religion they want without public shame or difficulties. Christian missionaries feeding children and clothing the homeless is also a great charity, one that would not be necessary if the local Muslims provided better care. In the 1990s, everyone was poor, but there are many wealthy Kazakhs that are very cavalier about their poor countrymen. If Christians, whether they are Russian Orthodox, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, or anything, should not be demonized for helping the poor.

Needless to say, I am also defending the LSD faithful, Jehovahs Witnesses, Hare Krishnas, and other religions that have traditionally been mistreated in Kazakhstan.

Comparing Kazakhstan to the “wild west” would make more sense if you had a better understanding of what the American West was like in the 19th century. Many people today use the term like they do “fascist” – without any understanding of the actual historical definition. It’s not just you, of course – but I feel the need to ask you to reconsider your opinions on who will be “muslim forever” and why people “fear” new religions.

Oldschool Boy December 14, 2008 at 11:45 pm

My sentence about Wild West was no more than just a figure of speach. I was not justifying any of the “official” confessions existing in Kazakhstan. My words “muslim forever” were sarcastic. All I was saying that the existing religions in Kazakhstan want to establish and maintain permanent status quo, some mutual agreement if you wish of not intruding. Any new cults are considered intruders. I have actually never been fond of the Kazakh muslim officials because they simply do nothing to educate or attract more people, they simply take everything for granted and seek government help to eradicate any independent muslim movement.
You Michael should not say that any christian church is demonized or discriminated, because it is not true and you know it. Do not bend the truth.
You know that none of the reliogoius confessions is discriminated in Kazakhstan in society. Kazakhstan is not India. People in Kazakhstan are actually more liberal in religious views than in the USA.
People in Kazakhstan fear new religions because thay were taught that “religion is opium for people” (Karl Marx) and they still feel it that way. It is as painful for them to lose their children to some cults, as it is painful to lose a child to drugs, and if narcotic drugs are illegal why should cults be legal?

Many missioners (not all of them) do not just help people, they buy their souls. They are like sales agents marketing their cults.

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