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Will the EU Be Called to Task on Kazakhstan?

By Mihra Rittmann

On December 21, after years of negotiations, the European Union and Kazakhstan signed an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), which gives Kazakhstan upgraded trade and economic relations with the EU writes Mihra Rottmann. 

The agreement will need to be ratified by the parliaments of all 28 European Union member states and the European Parliament, which could take years. Kazakhstan surely won’t hesitate, though, to boast of its new status as the only Central Asian state to conclude such an agreement with the EU.

But the EU has some explaining to do. It initially made clear that advancement of relations would depend on Kazakhstan making meaningful human rights improvements, but when Kazakhstan didn’t, the EU went ahead with negotiations anyway.

Three years ago, the then-EU High Representative Catherine Ashton said in the early stages of negotiations: “Strengthening EU-Kazakhstan relations does not – and cannot – occur independently from the progress of political reforms in Kazakhstan.”

In two separate resolutions on Kazakhstan, the European Parliament also made clear that enhanced relations with Kazakhstan should be linked to human rights improvements.

But Kazakhstan’s human rights record has deteriorated markedly since negotiations began, raising the question of what exactly the EU considers to be Kazakhstan’s “progress of political reforms.”

Certainly not the Kazakh government’s overt crackdown on fundamental freedoms that followed extended, unresolved labor strikes in the oil sector. The strikes ended in violent clashes in December 2011, when police killed 12 people. Authorities blamed outspoken oil workers and others for the unrest, and clamped down on free speech. At the end of 2012, critical media outlets were shut down after perfunctory trials, and the authorities have continued to suspend or shut down independent media outlets one after another.

In 2013 Kazakhstan adopted a law establishing a National Torture Prevention Mechanism. But that came after the oil strike defendants and others were convicted in an unfair trial in 2012, their allegations of torture uninvestigated in a manner capable of bringing the perpetrators to justice. The November 2014 review of Kazakhstan by the Committee against Torture highlighted serious torture-related concerns, including the gap between law and practice, and persisting impunity for torture.

How does the EU view the Kazakh authorities’ persistent misuse of the vague and overbroad criminal charge of “inciting social, national, clan, racial, class, or religious discord” to silence government critics? Among them is Vladimir Kozlov, an opposition leader, sentenced to seven and a half years in prison in 2012 on vague criminal charges, who was denied parole this month. Since October, three other government critics have been arrested – Ermek Narymbaev, Serikzhan Mambetalin and Bolatbek Blyalov, for “inciting discord.” Each faces up to 10 years in prison.

Last year, the government ignored leading Kazakh human rights groups’ serious misgivings as it adopted new criminal and administrative codes, and a new law on trade unions, that further restrict fundamental freedoms, in breach of international standards. This year, it adopted amendments to the law on nongovernmental organizations that set back freedom of association. Human rights and other groups may now face additional restrictions on their work, and their access to funding.

The Kazakh government has not taken any meaningful action since the EU negotiations began to amend a highly restrictive public assembly law that authorities use regularly to fine and jail peaceful protesters. In January, the UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, concluded after a trip to Kazakhstan that the “Government’s approach to regulating assemblies deprives the right of its meaning.”

In spite of these and other abuses, I’m hard-pressed to think of a single public articulation by EU officials during the negotiations process of any specific “political reforms” it expected Kazakhstan to undertake, let alone any evidence of engagement to secure such reforms.

Instead, the record shows a squandered opportunity to secure rights improvements in a country where the government seriously restricts fundamental rights, but whose leadership can now boast enhanced relations with the EU.

Kazakhstan won’t reap any actual benefits from the enhanced agreement until the parliaments of EU member states ratify the agreement and the European Parliament gives its consent. So the member states and parliament have a critical role to play in rectifying this missed opportunity. They should call the EU negotiating team to task for failing to follow through on Ashton’s pledge and make their approval of the agreement contingent on concrete progress in rights.

Mihra Rittmann is Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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