UN Secretary Antonio Guterres is on a regional tour and seems to be avoiding the subject.
On June 8, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres started his tour across Central Asia. He is there to take the pulse of the regional leaders, remind them about the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and assess the risk of global security threats. However, his agenda has left human rights defenders feeling disappointed — they feel ignored as Guterres avoids raising human rights issues with regional leaders.
Kazakhstan’s Central Gravity
Guterres started his Central Asian trip in Kazakhstan, coinciding with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit and Astana EXPO 2017. The SCO summit in Astana was doubly special this time, having accepted two new members –Pakistan and India — and also having the UN secretary general participate in its summit for the first time.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, in his meeting with Guterres, highlighted these two moments, calling them “historic.” Nazarbayev also took the opportunity to praise his country for being supportive of UN principles and initiatives. “You know that Kazakhstan is the leader of the anti-nuclear movement worldwide, and August 29 was declared the International Day against Nuclear Tests,” Nazarbayev said, adding that he had also “established the Kazakhstan Prize for a world without nuclear weapons.”
For his part, Guterres congratulated the Kazakh president on the successful SCO summit, which brought on board two new members. He noted that “the SCO is gradually becoming the center of gravity all over the world. This Organization, in my opinion, is an important foundation of today’s world order.”
Guterres also called Kazakhstan the key actor in the region during a meeting with media representatives. “We are here today to support the Kazakhstani government in such an important event as holding the world exhibition EXPO,” the secretary general told journalists. He predicted that the EXPO “certainly will have a positive effect on the country’s economy and will be a landmark in our commitment to sustainable development, especially in relation to something that is absolutely crucial to climate change.” Guterres highlighted Kazakhstan as a country vulnerable to climate change and called on the Kazakh government to make sure that the Paris Agreement is fully implemented.
Even as it hosts global events, however, Kazakhstan has been keeping up its continuous suppression of freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and NGOs, even adopting new legal changes to squeeze the space for civil society. However, Guterres did not meet with civil society representatives in Kazakhstan.
One of the leading human rights defenders in Kazakhstan, Bakhytzhan Toregozhina, told The Diplomat that they did not even know that UN secretary general was coming to Kazakhstan until the last minute. “Otherwise, we would make efforts to inform him about human rights situation in our country,” said Toregozhina.
According to Ivar Dale, the Geneva-based senior adviser of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, who works on Eurasia, Guterres’ visit was disclosed to human rights defenders only one day before he arrived. “This means that NGOs and activists were not given time to prepare thorough written briefings for him,” explained Dale. “Still, many of us, including the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, have sent letters pointing out the big issues he should address during his visit. We listed many crucial issues in every Central Asian states and we hope the secretary general will not shy away from raising sensitive issues, and use the respect he enjoys to help bring about positive change.”
Flowers for Karimov and the Aral Disaster
After Kazakhstan, Guterres visited Uzbekistan, where he met with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has held the office for just eight months. They met in Samarkand, the ancient city where previous President Islam Karimov is buried. The UN secretary general visited the grave of Uzbekistan’s first president with flowers and paid tribute to his memory.
According to UzDaily, Guterres noted that the reforms being carried out in Uzbekistan are of great importance to improving the well-being of the people and prosperity of the country. Mirziyoyev and Guterres discussed prospects for developing cooperation between Uzbekistan and the UN; in particular, they discussed mitigating the consequences of the Aral ecological disaster. Again, as in Kazakhstan, Guterres raised the issue of climate change rather than human rights in Uzbekistan.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch called on the UN secretary general to address human rights issues in the region, saying that this trip is “a major opportunity for the UN to mark its concern at the highest level.” Hugh Williamson, director of HRW’s Europe & Central Asia division, argued that the secretary-general should push Central Asian leaders for specific improvements, including ending torture and the crackdowns on demonstrations and freedom of expression.
Uzbekistan has been a brutal dictatorship for the past 25 years. It would be reasonable and appropriate to urge a new president to turn the country into a democratic one, release all political prisoners, allow international organizations to work, and let the media do their jobs freely. However, Guterres remained cautious in Tashkent.
Prominent Uzbek human rights activist Nadejda Atayeva, president of Central Asian Human Rights in Paris, does not believe that Mirziyoyev will bring changes to the country. “Speculation over a possible thaw in Uzbekistan… is only rhetoric, but not reality,” she said.
“Uzbekistan is a leader by the number of political dissidents and prisoners, and the country still remains closed for independent experts and observers. The visit of the UN secretary general would be a reminder of international obligations to not only Uzbekistan, but to all the SCO member states, who usually never remember that they all ratified UN human rights agreements and they are responsible to comply,” Atayeva added. […]