Human rights education (HRE) is at once a tool, the means, and a method to empower individuals in human rights. The 2011 United Nations (UN) Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training (HRET) encourages stakeholders and learners to disseminate information about human rights norms to equip people with knowledge and understanding, instruments, and mechanisms—and ultimately with skills. According to the HRET Declaration, educators and trainers aim to empower people by means of their awareness regarding the mutual benefits of human rights compliance. But for that to happen, people must not only understand human rights, but also believe in them as tools and mechanisms to solve problems and improve their living environment. Human rights are universally shared moral values, such as friendship, solidarity, fairness, respect, and trust. Human rights treaties and agreements set the written legal and political frameworks for these values. They encompass legally and politically binding instruments and mechanisms to implement and enforce human rights which apply worldwide. One vital human rights instrument is the UN International Bill of Human Rights. This covers ten core treaties and declarations of human rights, the majority of which have been signed, ratified, and recognized by all five Central Asian states—Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan—since their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. However, the extent to which these universal norms can be taught and taken as benchmarks to empower individual citizens depends largely on the political regimes, the capability, and the willingness of governments. The latter establish the framework that would allow civil society organizations (CSOs) to train people and to report on human rights violations. Governments also determine the extent to which human rights are incorporated in formal education and school curricula. None of the Central Asian countries has a National Action Plan for HRE, as requested by the UN, but some allow CSOs to conduct informal training.
- Human rights education
- Human rights
- Central Asia
- UN World Programme for Human Rights Education
The 2011 United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training (HRET) describes human rights education (HRE) as a tool that:
promotes values, beliefs, and attitudes that encourage all individuals to uphold their rights and those of others. It develops an understanding of everyone's common responsibility to make human rights a reality in each community.
(UN Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training 2011)
Human rights are universally and internationally agreed norms and standards that are guaranteed legally and politically and are enshrined in international human rights law (IHRL), which has been in practice since the establishment of the UN Charter in 1945 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. All five Central Asian states—Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan—are members of the UN and have adhered to the UN Charter since their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. All of them have ratified most of the core human rights treaties, and three of them (Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan) have been elected to the UN Human Rights Council. The latter comply with the UN Human Rights Council’s mechanisms, such as Universal Periodic Reviews and Special Procedures, albeit often reluctantly.
The UN is the key international standard-setter for human rights in Central Asia. The UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia (UNRCCA) and many other UN sub-branches and agencies have offices in the region. Other international players in Central Asia are the Organization for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).Footnote 1 All Central Asian states are members of the OSCE, which runs annual Human Rights Dialogues and summits through its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to which Central Asian countries respond. The SCO has no human rights mechanism.
Another explicitly regional human rights framework is the Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) established by the successor organization of the Soviet Union and in force since the early 1990s. The Convention that is driven by post-soviet states, reiterates the importance of the UDHR, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), as well as all international obligations on human rights assumed within the OSCE to apply to Central Asian countries.Footnote 2 By becoming a party to the Convention in the 1990s, all Central Asian states formally agreed to the fundamental rights and freedoms, as enshrined in the UDHR and other international human rights treaties. However, unlike the UN treaties, the 1995 Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of the CIS has neither monitoring nor enforcement mechanisms and is therefore seen as obsolete. The members of the Convention’s monitoring commission failed to intervene when member states violated or abused the fundamental rights and freedoms that the Convention included. The commission leaves any intervention to other international bodies, such as the ODIHR and the UN Human Rights Council.
Consequently, the only international legal framework with mechanisms for regular monitoring and enforcement, as well as support for HRE in the region, is the UN and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva, and its branch in Central Asia, which is based in the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek.
1.1 Human Rights Education in Central Asia
Although none of the Central Asian governments deliberately deny or exclude themselves from the UDHR or other general human rights agreements, let alone international law and customary law, they are poorly implemented.
The same is true for HRE. Central Asian governments do not reject the different phases of the World Programme for Human Rights Education, which has been ongoing since the first UN Decade for HRE in 1994–2004. All Central Asian states endorsed the Decade in 1993 during the UN World Conference for Human Rights in Vienna. Yet, to this day, none of the regional governments has had any serious National Action Plan for HRE. Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan have National Action Plans for human rights and sustainability, as required by the UN, but none for HRE.
Together with the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and other international organizations, the countries of Central Asia have established action plans and schemes that combine human rights and education in the formal education sector, but none that is predominantly HRE.
Human rights education is grounded in disseminating information on universal human rights norms through formal education sectors, such as state schools and universities, and private schools that apply state curricula. That said, informal sectors, that is, civil society organizations (CSOs), non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and human rights defenders (HRDs), such as lawyers, teachers, activists, and volunteers, are also a pivotal part of the fulfillment of HRE National Action Plans. Around the world, the informal sector is much more active in implementing HRE than the formal sector. The two sectors often complement each other, with NGOs also going into schools to give extracurricular courses on human rights. In most post-Soviet Central Asian countries, the key role in disseminating knowledge on and promoting human rights norms and practices is played by CSOs, NGOs, social media, and HRDs. Ministries of Education and National Action Plans that involve the formal sector are largely absent.Footnote 3 The Canadian Human Rights Foundation (CHRF), for example, trained many teachers and multipliers to become human rights educators in a project until 2005. Once funding had run dry, however, the training stopped. The CHRF project helped teachers to include human rights on the syllabus and invited CSOs to the classroom to talk about human rights (CHRF 2005), Human Rights Education in Schools in Central Asia, CHRF Central Asian Team).
University professors who have been trained abroad, mostly in Europe and the US, tackle aspects and certain conventions of international human rights law in their legal studies curricula and, if possible, during summer schools or certified courses on human rights outside the formal curricula. Such events have been organized at the American University for Central Asia and the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan; Webster College and the University of World Economy and Diplomacy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan; and the Eurasian Humanitarian Institute in Nur Sultan, as well as the private university KIMEP in Almaty, Kazakhstan, for example.
However, the curricula of these universities are exceptions. None of the five Central Asian states has a statute of formal HRE in either primary, secondary, or higher education. However, the student’s appetite for human rights and democracy studies is vastly growing in the search for answers vis-à-vis the dysfunctional political regimes in the region. In 2022, one of my students from Tajikistan wrote in an essay that “(…) the attempts of the people all over the world for living in democratic states will go on, because people want to be respected, free, valued, accepted, and heard. Unfortunately, achieving democracy requires time, unity, courage, and sacrifice and in Central Asian countries, people are not courageous enough yet to ask for this change”.Footnote 4 In response to this, the first postgraduate MA program on Human Rights and Sustainability (MAHRS) for Central Asian scholars and students will only be starting in 2023 at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek with the support of the European Union (EU) and donor states.
2 Human Rights in Central Asia
All Central Asian countries have a poor human rights record, according to UN reports.Footnote 5 Cases of human rights violations and abuses brought to court by HRDs are often contested or rejected. Fundamental human rights, such as freedom of religion and expression and access to information, are suppressed. Moreover, grave human rights violations, such as torture and ill-treatment, are frequently reported by HRDs, but mostly to no avail.Footnote 6 Consequently, since the independence of the five post-Soviet Central Asian states in 1991, their human rights situation has constantly been under scrutiny by CSOs, NGOs, and international governmental organizations (IGOs). The UN and the UN Human Rights Council is the primary organization that monitors human rights in Central Asia, complemented by the OSCE/ODIHR and its annual Human Dimension Meetings in Warsaw until 2020. They have been suspended since 2021, and their future and installment remain open.
The EU, the Council of Europe (CoE), and other international development agencies conduct human rights dialogues and training and provide financial support for HRE programs in the region. In 2018, the first UN and OSCE-led Forum on Human Rights took place in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, focusing on sustainable development, economic stability, and anti-terrorism. In December 2022, for the first time, the UN Global Forum for Human Rights Education took place in Uzbekistan, joined by the EU, the CoE, and the OSCE; aiming to highlight the importance of HRE in Central Asia which has been the white spot for HRE in comparison to other regions in the world. The Forum celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Declaration on Education and Training in Human Rights.Footnote 7 The participating governments from Central Asia confirmed the need for more academic and digital programs for HRE and marginalized groups. But as human rights are a highly contested area of debate and fulfillment, it remains to be seen whether and how Central Asian governments will keep their word.
At the same time, the human rights situation in Central Asia continues to deteriorate. Achievements, such as making domestic violence more prominent on the national agenda, are often short-lived and unsustainable. This perpetual lack of human rights compliance is associated with the increasing level of dysfunctional and corrupt political leadership and democratic backsliding, undoing any democratic achievements made after 1991. Mass detentions of journalists and demonstrators or legal trials used to intimidate the possible opposition, as seen in Kazakhstan in 2022, are expensive to maintain (Lemon 2019).
While thanks to social media sites such as Facebook and messenger services such as Telegram and WhatsApp, the countries’ violations and breaches of human rights have become more transparent, the polarization of anti-Western propaganda, and hence anti-human rights propaganda, has increased in recent decades. The rise of dynastic regimes in Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, the stronghold of autocracy in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and the re-autocratization of Kyrgyzstan’s once semi-parliamentarian regime since 2019 has beamed these countries back to the 1990s and their strictly authoritarian presidential regimes. The space for CSOs is under threat, social media tools are censored, NGOs are being expelled from the region, and access to the internet has, because of the energy crisis, become inaccessible for many due to the high costs and low quality. Radical political reforms and security laws have reduced the liberal space, media and internet freedoms, and social mobility for millions. Although access to the internet is not denied in any country, the high cost and poor quality are major obstacles. Yet, the internet remains the main tool of knowledge transfer and information for any form of HRE (Coysh 2018).
3 Impact of Human Rights Education
Over the past few decades, we have seen dramatic democratic backsliding, increased reports on human rights violations, and a rise in populist ethnic-nationalist governments in Central Asia. The 2011 HRET Declaration, the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as well as the ongoing UN World Programme for HRE, all emphasize human rights education, training, and dissemination of human rights standards as the essential tools to solve the region’s critical problems and challenges, including climate change and poverty-induced migration, minority rights, corruption, women’s and children’s rights, and anti-terrorism measures which are often in breach of human rights norms.Footnote 8
The 1999 UN General Comment on human rights highlights the importance of HRE not only in disseminating the idea of human rights and implementing those rights. The Comment states that HRE is a tool to promote universal norms, namely that.
(…) education shall be directed to the human personality’s sense of dignity, it shall ‘enable’ all persons to participate effectively in a free society, and it shall promote understanding among all ‘ethnic’ groups, as well as nations and racial and religious groups”.Footnote 9 It also emphasizes, from a philosophical perspective, that HRE enables “(…) a well-educated, enlightened and active mind…to wander freely and widely,” which it describes as “one of the joys and rewards of human existence.Footnote 10
For HRE to have any impact on changing people’s attitudes and behavior, the informal sector is pivotal. Human rights education still only reaches a self-selecting audience, namely those who consciously choose to attend training. Most of the population in the five Central Asian countries remains largely unaware of human rights and has no experience with HRE. Individual engagement, social movements, and general social media are often the only way to ensure that human rights-related knowledge, training, and capacity-building measures reach a broader, mainly younger audience. This informal space illustrates how human rights cultures emerge and evolve in social settings, often without guidance or context, and thus fail to impart an understanding of the full spectrum of human rights. The informal sector plays a pivotal role in HRE in Central Asia because the state is absent, unable, or unwilling to promote HRE in primary and secondary education.
The current fourth phase of the World Programme for Human Rights Education was launched in 2020. It will run until 2024, focusing on young people and their need for human rights empowerment in times of migration and urbanization. Half of the Central Asian population is under 30, a crucial target group for this phase. Many of these young people are frustrated with poor governance and the lack of social mobility and therefore seek opportunities elsewhere or risk their lives and safety protesting these conditions in Almaty (Kazakhstan), Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), and Karakalpakstan (an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan). The number of young migrants from Central Asia who move abroad to Dubai, Russia, Turkey, and Europe is among the highest in the world.
Because of the lack of proper formal education in human rights, the volume of online and offline material used to teach and train citizens on their human rights has peaked in recent years, partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to develop more online tools. This material has increased human rights awareness but not necessarily empowerment. Article 26 of the UDHR and Articles 13 and 14 of the ICESCR underline that everyone has a fundamental right to education—at least elementary education. Education and lifelong learning should, according to these two documents, be aimed at fully developing the human personality and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
However, with the increasing access to the internet and online learning, the state authorities have strengthened their surveillance, persecution, censorship, and anti-Western propaganda—blaming “Western human rights and liberties” for the shortcomings, poverty, and inequality in their countries. Instead of seeing HRE as a solution to corruption and inequality, governments oppose it. At the same time, thousands of bloggers, protesters, HRDs, and civic activists, seeking improved compliance with human rights norms have been arrested. This has made it even more difficult to integrate HRE into the formal education sector—except for subjects related to sustainability, women’s and children’s rights, and the environment, which are relatively undisputed and can therefore be taught more easily by NGOs and even in the classroom (Tibbitts 2020).
In Kazakhstan, for example, as stated by Yevgeny Zhovtis, head of Kazakhstan’s International Bureau for Human Rights, HRE depends on the political context and leadership. Although lip service and government promises to respect universal human rights and conduct HRE have increased in the past decade, so have human rights abuses and violations. This is more disquieting considering UN Human Rights Council memberships. In 2015, Kyrgyzstan joined the UN Human Rights Council, and Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan were elected to the Council in 2021. All have emphasized their commitments to the World Programme for HRE and the SDGs. Except for Turkmenistan, all four Central Asian countries continue participating in the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Commitment at the international level is not the problem, but at the grassroots level and in the classroom, human rights are conspicuously absent.
Governments show a certain political will to respond to international trends and submit reports, but the situation is different at the local level. For example, in February 2019, Uzbek foreign minister Vladimir Norov addressed the United Nations General Assembly (UN GA) in a letter highlighting the importance of all human rights for the development of the Central Asian Republics. In his letter, Norov summarized the results of the first UN-led Forum on Human Rights, which took place in Samarkand in November 2018, to enhance Uzbekistan’s candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council.
The Forum was the first of its kind in Central Asia and part of the celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the UDHR. All Central Asian representatives reiterated their commitment to the Declaration. They stressed that international human rights treaties would continue to be the political yardstick for domestic security policies, judicial reforms, and development policy, as well as education. The governmental representatives, ombudsmen, and women, and CSOs emphasized that compliance with human rights is an internal matter, not an external one. This was considered a milestone.
Outside the conference rooms in Samarkand, the societal and political reality was different. Anti-Western and anti-human rights sentiment is on the rise throughout the region, all the more since Russia’s unlawful aggression against Ukraine and the subsequent war in 2022. This will make it even more difficult for HRE to be implemented and HRDs to continue their work in the post-Soviet space in the future. The ongoing support for Russia’s position on international human rights and the Soviet legacy of arbitrary and political justice is far from constituting a reputable rule of law system. The Soviet legacy has never been unpacked—from a political, historical, or legal perspective. As a glorified and unchallenged political legacy, it threatens democratization and the rule of law in all Central Asian republics. And much of this unchallenged past is reflected, not least in the nature and seriousness of human rights violations (Omelicheva 2018: 57–80). After 1991, opportunities to introduce structural legal and political reforms to democratize and establish a political environment that adheres to the rule of law were missed, as was state building. This has led to a situation where CSOs heavily depend on individual alliances with policymakers and their willingness to support HRE.
4 Samarkand Declaration 2018 for Human Rights Education
At the end of the Central Asian Human Rights Forum in November 2018, the participating states from the region and beyond signed the Samarkand Declaration. The document highlighted the importance of civil society and underlined the delegates’ commitment to the SDGs and the UDHR. They also stressed the role of other quasi-non-governmental and independent domestic bodies in monitoring human rights compliance in their respective countries. This included the National Human Rights Institutes (NHRIs) and Ombudsmen institutions. Central Asian delegates emphasized the importance of an independent judiciary and private actors for the future well-being of the Central Asian republics.
Apart from these rather hollow promises, the Declaration has since been a door-opener for all non-governmental actors wanting to conduct more HRE. At the same time, however, governments have repeatedly claimed that human rights are Western and European rights and have little to do with the “traditional values” of Central Asian nations. An explanation as to exactly what these traditional values are, however, is nowhere to be found.
Nevertheless, in the Samarkand Declaration, the word “education” is mentioned 11 times, mostly in promoting general educational efforts to enhance human rights compliance. Paragraph 19, however, reads:
For education, training and public awareness on human rights and the SDGs, States shall strive to eradicate illiteracy, to provide direct training to enable the full development of human personality and to strengthen respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
States shall seek to enhance mutual understanding, tolerance and peace within countries and internationally.
In this regard, states should include human rights, humanitarian law, democracy, development and social justice, development and recommendations against food waste in the curricula of all institutions of formal and informal education. States shall enhance human rights education covering all strata of the population, including all categories of civil servants, judiciary, law enforcement, local self-government officials and civil society representatives.
States shall include human rights education, including on women’s rights, SDGs and electoral rights, into formal and informal educational programmes.Footnote 11
If any regions' governments were to adhere to anything they had signed, they would have to incorporate HRE in all aspects of the formal and informal education sector. Since 2018, however, nothing of that sort has happened, and even at the 2022 Global Forum for HRE in Samarkand, little or nothing was said about the implementation and progress of the 2018 Declaration. Nevertheless, Central Asian governments are under enormous domestic pressure to deliver their promises to their younger generation by leaders of marginalized and vulnerable groups, let alone the rising middle class, striving for more social mobility and economic and political freedoms. One of the big challenges for all regional actors is how to fight the corruption and nepotism which blocks any form of serious political reform.
Despite the government’s relentless emphasis on human rights, education, and compliance, the Samarkand Declaration allows CSOs and policymakers to refer to it when confronting corrupt and despotic public authorities. Yet, in paragraph 12 of the Samarkand Declaration, the signatory states emphasize that democratic mechanisms, such as an independent judiciary and a free civil society, are needed to achieve the objectives of the SDGs. For this, they must comply with all the fundamental human rights treaties that have already been ratified.
Another regional phenomenon that runs counter to the Samarkand Declaration is what has been referred to as the “re-traditionalization” of women in line with the “traditional values” of Central Asian nations promoted by the region’s governments. This value rhetoric largely relates to the way women must behave, not men. As a result, it strengthens the region’s patriarchal societies and reverts to daughters, wives, and mothers taking on the role of housekeepers and child bearers. Another development is the rise of Muslim religious schools (known as Madrassas) for the poor. The religious charity organizations linked to these schools are often the only ones to care for the underprivileged population in Central Asia. This phenomenon has fostered a toxic mix of alleged “traditions”, including bride kidnapping, keeping girls at home, and only sending boys to school. The re-emergence of the Muslim faith filled the vacuum in ideological guidance left by the collapse of the Soviet Union and allowed religious activities, suppressed for decades, to be carried out in public again. Madrassas and Muslim charity organizations have changed the paradigms and social attitudes in the region over the past three decades. Some communities have returned to pre-Russian and pre-Soviet habits and customs of not allowing girls to study or work, sending their sons to religious schools to become Imams, and fighting against corrupt state institutions. Governments across the region have responded to this rise with strict anti-terrorism measures targeting Muslim fighters, which often breach human rights. At the same time, however, regional governments are often seen entering into collaborative joint ventures with Muslim leaders, introducing state-controlled schools for Imams and building mosques while calling for a new national Central Asian Islam or a new political Islam.
Ethnic, language, and gender-related minority rights are sensitive issues in Central Asia, and the region has a poor track record when it comes to respecting and enforcing them. Violence against women is rising, and ethnic, religious, or sexual minorities are treated as scapegoats for the lack of social development. Most HRE programs focus on women’s and children’s rights, as these areas are less contested in the context of patriarchal structures and politics. Quite the opposite is the case if educators attempt to tackle the rights of LGBTIQs and members of ethnic minorities or other religious and language groups.Footnote 12 If at all, these rights are usually almost exclusively addressed via social media and messenger platforms, and often only in English rather than Russian or the national Central Asian languages to make the work less accessible to a wider audience and protect those HRDs who report misconduct in these groups.
It is important to stress that the pressure to improve human rights compliance and legal reforms comes from the people within these countries, not from other countries or international NGOs. Domestic and local CSOs are increasingly organized on social platforms, focusing on international human rights standards, and exchanging messages and reports via WhatsApp, Telegram, and Facebook (Abdusalyamova 2015). The continuing exodus of young people and economic dependence on third countries are increasing the pressure on governments to respond to this issue if they do not want to lose their small but well-educated class of young elites (Sharifzoda 2019).
Yet, Central Asia’s brain drain continues and largely prevents investment, innovation, and the development of economies that currently remain heavily dependent on remittances. It weakens the international position of Central Asian governments vis-à-vis the surrounding hegemons, namely Russia, China, and Turkey, on which they are highly dependent (Pomfret 2019: 31). None of these countries has a good track record when it comes to human rights compliance, and hence place little pressure on the Central Asian governments to comply with human rights standards. The less the countries develop, economically and socially, the weaker they remain vis-à-vis their allies. In essence, this was something the 2018 Samarkand Declaration indirectly admitted and emphasized.
5 Central Asian’ Human Rights (Education) Defenders
Human rights education remains in the hands of CSOs, NGOs, and higher education institutions with strong international partnerships. Without the involvement of international organizations, NGOs, and private donors, there would be no HRE programs or projects in Central Asia.Footnote 13 The UN has long relied on this political reality in Central Asia—and elsewhere—when it called for CSOs and social media to play a specific role in increasing human rights awareness and engaging in the fourth World Programme for HRE.Footnote 14
The fact that Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan have deliberately campaigned to be elected to the UN Human Rights Council and submitted their UPR illustrates their desperate need for international recognition—even if that means supporting the World Programme for HRE. They also allowed the UN, OSCE, and EU observers into the country to monitor and help support legal reforms according to international norms. Furthermore, Central Asian governments have intensified their collaboration with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), showing the political will to make concessions on regional and global norms beyond their national borders. The decades since 2000 can largely be described as a transition from “nation-building”—which failed in almost all five states—to “nation finding”.
Turkmenistan and Tajikistan are increasing their restrictive human rights policies and politics, even though domestically and internationally, pressure on all countries is growing. After the withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from Afghanistan in 2021 and the subsequent outbreak of civil war and the Russian war in Ukraine in 2022, isolation from the international community is the least these countries can afford. However, the gradual opening to the international arena has yet to necessarily be followed by the opening to CSOs domestically. Quite the opposite. Suppression and expulsion of NGOs and HRDs are still the norms rather than the exception, with the sole purpose of not losing control over the minds and actions of citizens. Governments in Central Asia are fully aware that the more they engage internationally and allow international companies, businesses, educators, and CSOs to operate domestically, the more people’s attitudes and habits will change, sometimes in opposition to the oppressive political regimes. Hence, governments need to make concessions internationally and domestically at the same time.
One way of doing this was to become a member of the UN Human Rights Council and collaborate with the OSCE, SCO, and the EU. The EU Initiative for Human Rights and Rule of Law in Central Asia established in 2020, for example, has been endorsed by Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Both states are under enormous pressure—internally from their own citizens and externally from countries such as Afghanistan, Russia, and China. They need international alliances to withstand these pressures.Footnote 15 The concessions they made toward the EU and the UN include a willingness to accept appropriate criticism in the form of recommendations from the UN, legal training from the EU, and compliance with policy reforms proposed by the OSCE. Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan have also been voluntarily participating in the UPRs and Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council for more than ten years and recently engaged in the EU Rule of Law Initiative for Central Asia, along with the 2019 EU Central Asia Strategy.Footnote 16
Of all the five republics, Turkmenistan is the least active when it comes to reporting on human rights and is also the country with one of the worst human rights records in the world. Independent NGOs and media do not exist, and the country is also virtually closed to independent scrutiny. An independent investigation of alleged human rights abuse is therefore impossible. Most reports on labor camps and mass violations come from the diaspora community or satellite pictures of concentration camps.
By contrast, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have tried their hardest to comply formally by submitting reports. Numerous reports have been submitted to the special UN committees on specific human rights issues, for example—albeit irregularly. The same applies to governmental reports on human rights submitted to the OSCE-ODIHR and during the ODIHR’s annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw.Footnote 17
In 2008, the UN was finally allowed to establish its first regional office in Central Asia, in Bishkek. These regional headquarters cover all five countries. The main tasks of the office include advice and training of civil servants and the judiciary and, if requested by the government, training of law enforcement personnel or public servants (OHCHR, Annual Report 2018). The office also supports national human rights institutions in the region and helps build civil society. It is actively campaigning for the deployment of UN Special Rapporteurs on discrimination, torture, independence of the judiciary, detention conditions, HIV, and domestic violence. These activities had previously just been part of the Central Asian countries’ foreign policies and are now gradually becoming part of domestic policies (Omelicheva and Markowitz 2019).
The Kyrgyz government was one of the first to convene a Human Rights Coordination Council in 2013, for example. However, it adopted an action plan for implementing freedoms in December 2019 in response to UN demands (Kabar 2019). Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan also took part in earlier EU Human Rights Dialogues from 2008 onward. Yet, all these activities have been, for the most part, isolated projects and programs, often in the run-up to an international meeting. All countries still need to incorporate HRE and legal reforms into their formal education and public sector, which would lead to sustainable change and compliance with human rights norms.
Human rights education in Central Asia started in the early 2000s as teachers being trained by some international NGOs with the aim of human rights becoming a school subject—something which never materialized, however. Human rights education began as an informal, private matter between a few educated elites but soon developed into activists campaigning and increasing the number of HRDs. Through CSOs, activists, and social media, HRE has proactively changed minds, attitudes, habits, and behavior across the region. That said, it has never been shaped by proper professional educational guidance. As a result, for many, human rights often remain an obscure set of norms that are not easy to apply because their purpose is not understood.
Approximately 90% of all activities, programs, and training are conducted by CSOs, NGOs, and HRDs, and are supported by the UN and its sub-agencies, as well as the OSCE and the EU. As in other parts of the world, in the five Central Asian countries, too, CSOs are the primary actors and agents of HRE—such as it exists. They achieve this with support and funding from the UN, EU, OSCE, and other private international donors, such as the Open Society Foundation, political and philanthropic foundations, the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ), Japanese and Canadian development grants, and USAID. Without funding from these organizations for trainers, there would be no HRE.
As a result, human rights awareness is often incomplete and biased. This can sometimes lead to the resentment of one group of people toward another, for example, men against women, Muslims against Christians, LGBTIQ against ethnic minorities, and so on. Sometimes, therefore, it can lead to more breaches of human rights norms than reconciliation. Thus, the desire for full control over education is not only a legacy of the Soviet period but also a fundamental claim of authoritarian leadership. The latter, however, is unable and unwilling to govern the gradual incorporation of HRE into the formal and informal education and training sectors.
Except for Turkmenistan, which is not a member of the SCO.
The International Bill of Human Rights, ten core global human rights treaties. UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, The International Bill of Human Rights. Available at https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/FactSheet2Rev.1en.pdf.
EUCAM, Civil Society in Central Asia (2018), a discussion paper by Jos Boonstra, EUCAM initiative, Centre for European Security Studies (CESS) and Tika Tsertsvadze, International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR); Civil Society and Confidence Building in Central Asia, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe (2020), Geneva Center for Security Sector Governance (Civil society in Central Asia: What role for the European Union?).
Student essay on ‘Good Governance and Transformation in Central Asia’, OSCE Academy in Bishkek, 2022.
The key normative references for HRE and the HRET Declaration is the UN World Programme for HRE and the International Bill of Human Rights. See UN World Programme for Human Rights. Available at https://www.ohchr.org/en/resources/educators/human-rights-education-training/world-programme-human-rights-education/phase4). The Bill enshrines ten key UN declarations and conventions that define and outline universal human rights norms and standards—most of which are today considered part of customary international law. Hence, even if the UN core treaties have not all been ratified by all five Central Asian states, their norms are applicable and enforceable in each of the five countries due to their customary legal status. However, whether judges and lawyers, let alone HRDs and teachers refer to them as customary is a matter of awareness and HRE. The core treaties, for example, define the human right to physical integrity and the need to abolish torture and ill-treatment, as well as to combat racism and xenophobia, to promote and protect women’s and girls’ rights, social, cultural, religious, and economic rights, political and civil rights, the rights of migrants. Treaties condemn disappearances and emphasize the importance of the rights of people with disabilities and the rights of children. These human rights should be seen as norms and standards. They are “tools” or “keys” to develop or “unlock” people’s capacity to create a peaceful life of justice and equality in their communities. Enhancing, respecting, and enforcing human rights ought to protect us from harm in the form of ill-treatment and discrimination that could prevent us from prospering. One of these empowerment rights (Art. 26 in the UDHR) is the right to education, which allows us to develop to the best of our abilities and live a dignified life.
Treaty Database on UN OHCHR. Available at https://www.un.org/en/about-us/udhr/foundation-of-international-human-rights-law (Accessed Dec 2022).
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Mihr, A. (2023). Human Rights Education and Human Rights in Central Asia. In: Mihr, A., Wittke, C. (eds) Human Rights Dissemination in Central Asia. SpringerBriefs in Political Science. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-27972-0_3
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