1 Introduction

Now that I have written this chapter, I realize that it was an exercise in the relativity of law and legal sociology. The chapter is about “human rights”, but its limited scope compelled me to mention some and omit others. The focus is on civil and political rights, although economic, social, and cultural rights are also dealt with. The chapter is about “Central Asia”, but the truth is that there is no single Central Asia, and not only do the Central Asian states—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—differ from one other but each also displays important internal differences. Such differences—for example, competition for power between regional clansFootnote 1—inform regular political processes within the states but on a few occasions have resulted in situations of violence. The Central Asian states have acceded to all the major instruments of international human rights law but when it comes to implementation, much work remains to be done, in particular, as far as the freedom of the press, rule of law, independence of the judiciary, corruption perception, and gender inequality are concerned. The constitutions of all Central Asian states contain provisions about the democratic character of their respective political regimesFootnote 2 but politicians across the region often insist that democratic practices in the region are “unique”, and some incidents interpreted by the West as human rights violations merely testify to local peculiarities that can be justified by cultural relativism.Footnote 3

Most of the human rights issues that persist in Central Asia are, at least in part, attributable to the Soviet past. Central Asia’s key policymakers came from the Soviet nomenclature, and it is unsurprising that the evolution of the political rhetoric about democracy (of which human rights are a constituent element) in post-Soviet Central Asia comprised three stages: “(1) decisive statements about the course toward democracy at the beginning of independence; (2) statements about the possibility of an exclusively national model of democracy; (3) recognition of enlightened authoritarianism as the most suitable fundament for the political system”.Footnote 4 Overcoming this Soviet legacy is a matter of political evolution, and requires time and political will. Instead of formally listing the instruments of international human rights law which the individual Central Asian states have acceded to, this chapter highlights some of the most critical human rights issues, along with some of the most notable achievements in each country, in order to exemplify the regional human rights dynamics since 1991. It is hoped that the interdisciplinary methodology employed will place human rights in the broader sociological context they deserve, and illustrate their relationship with political, economic, and other developments in post-Soviet Central Asia. General observations and recommendations are offered in the Concluding Remarks section.

2 Kazakhstan

An economic leader in the region,Footnote 5 Kazakhstan also positions itself as a regional political power with a multi-vector foreign policy.Footnote 6 Since 1991, it has been trying to balance its development priorities with other commitments, including international human rights law, with varying degrees of success. In 1993, the Bolashak International Scholarship was established to help talented Kazakhstani youth obtain world-class higher education abroad. In the same year, a highly efficient human rights NGO—the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law—was established. The Soros Foundation Kazakhstan has been supporting human rights initiatives in the country since 1995. A moratorium on the death penalty has been in place since 1 January 2004,Footnote 7 and in 2020, Kazakhstan acceded to the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and abolished the death penalty in accordance with its provisions.Footnote 8 In 2013, a National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) was put in place to prevent and eliminate torture and other forms of ill-treatment. Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the government introduced a program of voluntary resettlement of ethnic Kazakhs from the south to the north of the country,Footnote 9 and several Kazakh nationals were sentenced under Article 172 of the Criminal Code for taking part in the ongoing armed conflict in eastern Ukraine.Footnote 10 Anti-corruption reforms included the establishment of an efficient system of e-government (Egov) and a network of public service centers (TSON). Legislation on trade unions was amended in 2020. According to Human Rights Watch, “[t]he most notable change is the removal of a requirement that local and industrial tier trade unions must affiliate with a higher tier trade union body or risk losing their right to legally carry out any activities, a violation of the right of trade unions to freely determine their structure […] Other positive changes include simplified registration requirements and an extension from 6 to 12 months to complete registration procedures. The amendments make it clear in law that trade unions in Kazakhstan have the right to join international trade union organizations, and to jointly organize events and projects with them”.Footnote 11 On the other hand, a number of issues have attracted the attention of domestic and international human rights monitors. As of this writing, one individual complaint had been considered under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, 15 individual complaints had been submitted under the Convention against Torture, and 45 individual complaints had been considered under the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR.Footnote 12 On 16‒17 December 2011, police used force against protesters in Zhanaozen, as a result of which 17 people were killed and more than a hundred were wounded, according to official data.Footnote 13 Domestic violence is widespread and sexual violence, including against children, is a continuing issue.Footnote 14 To respond to the latter problem, in 2019 and 2020, criminal responsibility for sexual crimes was reinforced (cf. Articles 120‒124 of the Criminal Code).

After the first President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned on 19 March 2019, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was elected to the post on 9 June 2019, which heralded a number of human rights reforms. In particular, the concept of a “listening state” was announced with a view to improving the quality of dialogue with civil society,Footnote 15 legislation on peaceful assemblies was revised,Footnote 16 and, in 2021, the electoral law was reformed.Footnote 17 In 2019, the Ministry of Justice initiated amendments to the Law on Advocacy and Legal Aid, which, according to some commentators, might cause substantial harm to the independence of legal advisersFootnote 18 and make legal services more expensive.Footnote 19 On 12 May 2021, President Tokayev requested that the Constitutional Council assess the compatibility of the proposed amendments to the Constitution of Kazakhstan.Footnote 20 On 4 June 2021, the Constitutional Council found a “lack of clarity and inconsistency of some of [the proposed] provisions with related norms, which [might] create conditions for their ambiguous understanding and improper application”.Footnote 21 At the same time, however, the Council ruled that the amendments were compatible with the Constitution.Footnote 22 Despite the controversy, the amendments were adopted on 9 June 2021.

3 Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan is a paradoxical nation. Often referred to as Central Asia’s “island of democracy”,Footnote 23 Kyrgyzstan experienced two revolutions (in 2005 and 2010), which suggests that the political system’s ability to facilitate a peaceful transition of power is limited, albeit in a way that differs from its neighbors. The country’s political landscape has been dominated by competition for power between the “north” and the “south” ever since 1991.Footnote 24 Organized crime is yet another serious factor.Footnote 25 Kyrgyzstan retains a strong Soviet legacy—statues of Lenin, Marx, and Engels can still be seen in the center of Bishkek, and Kyrgyzstan has an active communist party. Russia retains strong influence over politics, the economy, military affairs, and higher education: Kyrgyzstan is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU, joined in 2015), it hosts a joint Russian military base,Footnote 26 and the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavonic University (KRSU) was established as early as 1992. At the same time, Kyrgyzstan’s higher education offering includes the American University of Central Asia (AUCA, founded in 1993) and the OSCE Academy in Bishkek (founded in 2002). Until 2021, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including local and international human rights NGOs, could operate relatively freely.

At the time of writing, one individual complaint had been submitted against Kyrgyzstan under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the Human Rights Committee had considered no fewer than 43 individual complaints under the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR.Footnote 27 Violence against women and girls is widespread.Footnote 28 Although explicitly proscribed by Article 175 of the Criminal Code,Footnote 29 bride kidnapping remains a pressing issue.Footnote 30 Massive inter-ethnic violence, which erupted in the south of the country in June 2010,Footnote 31 and likely amounted to crimes against humanity,Footnote 32 has still not been fully investigated. Kyrgyzstan included the concept of crimes against humanity in its Criminal Code in 2016—the only Central Asian state to have done so.Footnote 33 A prominent human rights defender, ethnic Uzbek Azimjon Askarov, who had been working on the documentation of the violent events in 2010 was given a life sentence and died in prison on 25 July 2020.Footnote 34

Since 1991, Kyrgyzstan has enacted three Constitutions—in 1993, 2010, and, most recently, in 2021. The 1993 Constitution was amended on several occasions with a view to reinforcing the authority of the president.Footnote 35 After Presidents Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev had been ousted from office, inter alia, on the grounds of corruption and abuse of power, the 2010 Constitution replaced the presidential republic with a parliamentary one.Footnote 36 The most recent Constitution was enacted on 5 May 2021.Footnote 37 It consolidated the power of the president in that it transferred “power from the parliament to the president to appoint members of the cabinet, and appoint and dismiss judges, the prosecutor general, the chairman of the national bank, and members of the Accounting Chamber, as well as nominate and dismiss half of the Central Election Committee, undermining their independence from the executive”.Footnote 38 The new Constitution also placed restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association, and introduced new regulations for NGOs and political parties.Footnote 39 It remains to be seen where this worrying trend will take the country.

4 Tajikistan

Complicated by religion, competition for power among regional clans, social traditions, and the enduring legacy of the violent non-international armed conflict that took place in 1992‒1997,Footnote 40 the human rights situation in Tajikistan is quite tense.Footnote 41 Domestic violence is widespreadFootnote 42 and early marriages occur.Footnote 43 Arbitrary detentions of opposition supportersFootnote 44 and attacks against journalistsFootnote 45 have been recorded. The situation is exacerbated by the weakness of Tajikistan’s economyFootnote 46: in 2019, personal remittances received by families of Tajik labor migrants working abroad (primarily, in the Russian Federation) constituted 28.6 percent of the overall GDP.Footnote 47 Like in Kyrgyzstan, Russia’s influence in the politics, military affairs, and education space of Tajikistan is extensive. Tajikistan hosts Russia’s 201st military base (at the time of writing, Russia’s military presence in the country has been confirmed until 2042), is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO),Footnote 48 and the Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon—who had been in power since 1994 and appointed his elder son as mayor of Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe in 2017Footnote 49—was the only foreign head of state present at the annual victory parade in Moscow in 2021.Footnote 50 The Russian-Tajik Slavonic University (RTSU) was founded in 1996 and is one of the most popular higher education institutions in Tajikistan. In 2020‒2021, Russia reportedly invested up to 30 million USD in the construction of Russian schools in Tajikistan.Footnote 51 According to Article 2 of the Constitution of Tajikistan, Russian is the “language of inter-ethnic communication”.Footnote 52 With all these factors in place, Russian influence is going to be around for decades to come.

As of this writing, the Human Rights Committee had considered no fewer than 29 individual complaints under the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR.Footnote 53 The COVID-19 pandemic posed a serious challenge to Tajikistan, as it did to the other Central Asian states, including in terms of respect for human rights. Tajikistan did not acknowledge the existence of COVID-19 cases on its territory until 30 April 2020.Footnote 54 According to Human Rights Watch, “Tajik authorities have provided some information about how to prevent the spread of Covid-19 on government ministry websites, and have visited some schools, universities, and army bases to inform people about the disease”.Footnote 55 Still, “they have not imposed a quarantine or encouraged social distancing in any meaningful way. The government did not cancel Nowruz, or New Year, festivities in late March, and schools, businesses, and most public spaces remain[ed] open”.Footnote 56 Obviously, above and beyond the right to the highest attainable standard of health, throughout Central Asia, the COVID-19 pandemic affected, inter alia, the right to education at all levels, access to justice, as well as the rights to freedom of movement, expression, and assembly.Footnote 57

5 Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is the most complex Central Asian nation. The authoritarian political system is rigidly controlled by the president, and independent human rights scrutiny is very difficult.Footnote 58 In 1985, Saparmurat Niyazov became First Secretary of the Turkmen Communist Party and remained in power as the first President of Turkmenistan (Türkmenbaşy—“Head of the Turkmen”) until his death in December 2006. Turkmenistan became a permanently neutral state in 1995,Footnote 59 and maintains conscription-based armed forces.Footnote 60 During Niyazov’s time in power, opera, ballet, and circuses were banned (in 2001), the months of the year and weekdays were renamed (in 2002), and his two-volume book, Ruhnama, became mandatory reading at all schools, higher education institutions, and government agencies. The information the book contained was required to qualify for a driver’s license, and quotes from Ruhnama, along with those from the Quran, were built into the walls of the Türkmenbaşy Ruhy Mosque in Turkmenistan’s capital city Ashgabat. Niyazov’s successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, also had sweeping powers in the largely isolated political system and held the title of Arkadag (“Protector”). Berdimuhamedow published no fewer than 55 books on various subjects,Footnote 61 some of which people “worship[ped] like bread or the Quran, kissing them upon receipt and applying the coveted tome to their foreheads”.Footnote 62 Meanwhile, the mass media are strictly censored, access to the internet is limited, and political dissent is suppressed.Footnote 63 Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow’s only son Serdar was a member of parliament, held a few posts in the executive, was appointed Deputy Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers on 11 February 2021,Footnote 64 and was elected third President of Turkmenistan on 12 March 2022.

The social and economic situation in the country is difficult. As of June 2021, Turkmenistan has not reported a single COVID-19 case,Footnote 65 but in July 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) already advised the Turkmen authorities to take “critical public health measures […] as if COVID-19 was circulating”. On 3 June 2021, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) announced that the 2021 Tissot UCI Track Cycling World Championships, which were scheduled to take place in Ashgabat on 13‒17 October 2021, “have been cancelled in their initial format, at the request of their organisers, as the health constraints and restrictions linked to the Covid-19 pandemic make it impossible to stage the event in the country”.Footnote 66 Earlier in 2021, food queues were banned, “in order not to discredit the president”.Footnote 67 As of this writing, the Human Rights Committee had considered no fewer than 23 individual complaints under the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR.Footnote 68 The fact that the other Central Asian countries’ statistics are higher can only be due to practical obstacles in communicating the Turkmen cases to the Human Rights Committee and other human rights bodies.

6 Uzbekistan

Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the first international legal instrument ratified by Uzbekistan after proclaiming its independence on 31 August 1991,Footnote 69 the human rights record of post-Soviet Uzbekistan remained consistently problematic until 2016—indeed, Human Rights Watch referred to it as “abysmal”.Footnote 70 The powers of the Ministry of Interior and the National Security Service were sweeping, and a Law on Internal Affairs Bodies was not adopted until 2016,Footnote 71 with the National Security Service being reorganized into the State Security Service in 2018.Footnote 72 As of this writing, one individual complaint had been submitted against Uzbekistan under the Convention against Torture, and the Human Rights Committee had considered no fewer than 53 individual complaints under the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR.Footnote 73 According to the former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Theo van Boven, torture in Uzbek places of detention was “systematic” at the time of his visit to the country in 2002.Footnote 74 The name “Zhaslyk”—a detention facility in the west of the country—became synonymous with ill-treatment. The second President of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, ordered Zhaslyk’s closure in 2019.Footnote 75 On 13 May 2005, a protest in the eastern Uzbek town of Andijan was suppressed,Footnote 76 and strict measures against civil society and foreign and international organizations represented in Uzbekistan followed.Footnote 77 The death penalty was abolished as of 1 January 2008.Footnote 78 According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the use of forced labor, including child labor, in the cotton harvest was “systematic and systemic” in the country, until a report issued in early 2021 confirmed that “[s]ystematic child labour has been eradicated and child labour [was] no longer a major concern”.Footnote 79 According to the same report, “[t]he Uzbek government has significantly increased wages since 2017 and introduced a differentiated pay scale so that pickers are paid more per kilogramme of cotton towards the end of the harvest, when conditions are less favourable and there is less cotton to pick. This has led to a significant drop in the prevalence of forced labour”.Footnote 80 The government has also recognized the issue of labor migration,Footnote 81 and started taking measures to improve the situation of labor migrants abroad.Footnote 82

Progressive reforms carried out in Uzbekistan since 2016 are bearing fruit. The number of acquittals in criminal cases has increased significantly since 2017.Footnote 83 In 2018, President Mirziyoyev mandated a revision of the Criminal and Criminal Procedure Codes of Uzbekistan, among other things, with a view to filling “gaps in criminal law and procedure resulting in inadequate protection of human rights and freedoms”.Footnote 84 Although the draft of a new edition of Uzbekistan’s Criminal Code does contain a few notable improvements, it has also attracted some criticism on the part of international human rights experts, in particular, in the context of offenses related to the exercise of the freedom of association, domestic violence, LGBT rights, and criticism of public figures.Footnote 85 Uzbekistan is cooperating with expert organizations—such as the International Commission of Jurists—on the implementation of international law, in particular, on economic, social, and cultural rights, as well as access to justice.Footnote 86 On 21 December 2019, The Economist opined that “no other country has advanced that far”, and named Uzbekistan “country of the year”.Footnote 87 In early 2020, Uzbekistan announced the completion of mine clearance along its border with Tajikistan. Given that over the past 20 years, a total of 374 citizens of Tajikistan had been killed by anti-personnel landmines, and another 485 Tajik nationals injured,Footnote 88 the humanitarian significance of this development is outstanding. On 22 June 2020, the President of Uzbekistan approved a National Human Rights Strategy of the Republic of Uzbekistan,Footnote 89 which expounds, on 66 pages, the functions of various national authorities with respect to the implementation of international human rights law and recommends measures on human rights education.

7 Concluding Remarks

Thirty years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Central Asian states are still learning to apply international human rights law, and to communicate about it with external and domestic audiences. Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed numerous issues with the region’s implementation of human rights in practice, and not only with respect to healthcare per se. Access to information was not always consistent, the statistical methods employed were at times contradictory, the legal status of regulations issued by the “Chief Sanitary Doctors” was uncertain, and the legal challenges posed by the state of emergency regime were considerable.Footnote 90 The transition to online education was not a satisfactory solution, in terms of quality, for larger families which lacked the hardware to allow their children to all attend classes simultaneously.Footnote 91 Defense lawyers reported that online—civil but, especially, administrative and criminal—trials via WhatsApp were not a good solution either, among other things, due to the limited number of participants in a session and difficulties related to the examination of evidence.Footnote 92 The consequences of these ad hoc solutions are yet to be seen. But there are also useful lessons to be learnt.

Central Asian governments should invest, as a matter of urgency, in the digitalization of administrative procedures, and other public services. Doing so will increase the efficiency and speed of such procedures, significantly reduce the risk of corruption, and visibly improve the quality of dialogue between governments and civil society. Instead of introducing new rules, regulatory barriers should be taken down, wherever possible, especially in the field of the economy. There should be greater transparency and accountability in political decision-making. Such reforms would help modernize economic and political systems and improve the quality of life of the region’s populations.

Due to the region’s political culture, workable reforms will only come from the top. This means, in effect, that governments should recognize that compliance with international human rights law is not “harmful” to the state, but in fact will ultimately contribute to “further strengthening the country’s authority in the international arena, in particular, improving the position [of the state] in economic, political and legal rankings and indices”.Footnote 93 International human rights are closely linked to all areas of life, and respect for human rights is an important indicator both for international investors and policymakers,Footnote 94 as it testifies to the stability, predictability, and trustworthiness of a state’s judiciary and law enforcement system. Judges—especially those dealing with criminal and administrative cases—and law enforcement officers should be trained on the application of domestic and international human rights law, and states should genuinely align their law enforcement practices with their obligations under the applicable human rights instruments. Importantly, international human rights treaties and constitutional provisions on human rights should be directly applicable in domestic legal systems. Decisive measures must be taken to combat torture and other forms of ill-treatment. The legal status and influence of national human rights institutions should be raised,Footnote 95 and they should be staffed by individuals with professional knowledge of international human rights law, international humanitarian law, and international criminal law. Regular dialogue with the UN human rights organs, as well as international and domestic human rights NGOs would be helpful. The cumulative effect of such measures will benefit individuals, society, and the government alike.