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International Relations and Human Rights Observatory

09.20.21

Why does Kazakhstan need to be on the UN Human Rights Council?

Kazakhstan’s desire to become a member on the HRC does not have as much to do with human rights as it does with the country’s foreign policy and the matters of positioning internationally. So that it can say that if the country is a member on the HRC, it is promoting human rights. This is not the first such foreign policy initiative made by Kazakhstan’s authorities. In 2010, Kazakhstan was the first of the ex-USSR states to be elected as Chair of the OSCE. In 2013-2015, Kazakhstan was elected as a member on the HRC for the first time. Today, it is ramping up to take part for a second time in a no-alternative election.
By Yevgeniy Zhovtis

¿Por qué kazajistán necesita estar en el Consejo de Derechos Humanos de la ONU?

On 14 June 2021, the Republic of Kazakhstan sent to the UN General Assembly Chair a Verbal Note putting its candidacy to be elected as a member of the UN Human Rights Council in 2022-2024. The election will take place in October 2021.

By way of reminding, the Human Rights Council consists of 47 members who are elected for a term of three years following the principle of equitable geographical distribution, based on regional quotas as follows: Africa - 13 members; Asia-Pacific - 13 members; Latin American and the Caribbean - 8 members; Western Europe and other states - 7 members; Eastern Europe - 6 members. The five openings from the Asia-Pacific, five states are putting their candidacy forward: India, Kazakhstan, Qatar, Malaysia, and the United Arab Emirates. Therefore, Kazakhstan’s chance to be elected is essentially guaranteed.

What is worth paying attention to is the fact that a membership on the UNHRC is premised on the responsibility for maintaining the very highest standards when it comes to human rights. Those are the criteria the states insisted on when adopting in March 2006 the UN General Assembly Resolution 60/251, in accordance with which the HRC was established.

However, later on «the highest standards when it comes to human rights» collided with the idea that as many as possible HRC member states should be covered and rotated. As pridefully noted on the HRC website, as many as 117 states have already been its members. Among them, such «outstanding defenders of human rights who maintain the highest standards» as China (twice, two terms each time); Cuba (twice, two terms each time, with Fidel Castro and after him), Lybia (twice, the first time when Muammar Gaddafi was still around), Venezuela (twice, with Nicholas Maduro as President), Eritrea, and others.

In other words, in the course of the Universal Periodical Review, when the states once every four years would report on how human rights, including political rights and civil liberties, were respected, and when the UNHRC members were giving their recommendations on improving the situation, representatives from China, Cuba, Venezuela and Eritrea were the ones who recommended how the right to take part in government of own country, or to exercise the freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, was to be observed.

This sounds, mildly speaking, ludicrous, unless one makes a simple conclusion, which is that a membership on the HRC is not about maintaining the highest standards when it comes to human rights, it’s all about international politics, diplomacy and various interests--geopolitical, economic and security interests. Once this becomes clear, any criteria of human rights observance become second-priority, while human rights themselves fall hostage to such international political construction.

Therefore, Kazakhstan’s desire to become a member on the HRC does not have as much to do with human rights as it does with the country’s foreign policy and the matters of positioning internationally. So that it can say that if the country is a member on the HRC, it is promoting human rights.

This is not the first such foreign policy initiative made by Kazakhstan’s authorities. In 2010, Kazakhstan was the first of the ex-USSR states to be elected as Chair of the OSCE. In 2013-2015, Kazakhstan was elected as a member on the HRC for the first time. Today, it is ramping up to take part for a second time in a no-alternative election.

Every time, to reconfirm its seriousness, Kazakhstan authorities generously made various promises to promote democracy, ensure the rule of law and respect for human rights.

The decision to give Kazakhstan an OSCE chairmanship in 2010 was made during the OSCE ministerial meeting in Madrid in November 2007. Back then, Marat Tazhin, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister, promised to bring the country’s policies and executive actions in the area of human rights in line with what was expected of a chair member state. In particular, a promise was made that by the end of 2008 the law on mass media would be amended, the election law would be reformed, and registration requirements to political parties would be relaxed.

In 2012, when putting its candidacy forward for a membership on the HRC, Kazakhstan made voluntary commitments to improve the situation with human rights--although, mainly enlisting its achievements, including those that happened during its tenure as OSCE Chair. This document, which was submitted to the Chair of the UN General Assembly, was practically silent on the respect and promotion of political rights and civil liberties, while speaking mostly of vulnerable groups, women’s rights, etc. Those are certainly very important topics, along with the fight against torture and a staged abolition of the death sentence; however, the issue of fundamental political rights is the one that is the most acute in Kazakhstan.

If we look at the net results of how the promises relating to political reforms made back in 2007 are being implemented, the results look disappointing in 2021. Neither Parliament nor local executive bodies have any political opposition at all, because all of the elections have been held following a proportional scheme, i.e. of candidates from political parties, and there has not been a single opposition party registered in the last 15 years. The only opposition party that had been registered earlier has been marginalised and did not participate in the recent parliamentary election.

There are no independent national radio stations or TV stations, and the law on peaceful assembly, in the opinion of international experts including the UN Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Assembly and of Association, falls short of international standards. The number of prisoners on political grounds has been growing, as has the number of verdicts against civil society activists sentencing them to a novel punishment--a several-year ban to engage in any public activity.

In 2021, when putting forward its candidacy to the UNHRC Kazakhstan has once again taken upon itself voluntary commitments, including a commitment to join and ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, a promise to reinforce the mandate of the Ombudsman, and Ombudsman for the Rights of the Child, as well as a commitment to implement a «large package of political reforms with a main focus on human rights, one which would usher in a new era in the social and political life of the country.»

Fourteen and nine years, respectively, have passed since the time the last promises were made. Is there hope that the membership in the HRC will bring meaningful changes this time around? Hard to say, other than hope dies last.

Yevgeniy Zhovtis
Yevgeniy Zhovtis
Director of the International Office for Human Rights and the Rule of Law of Kazakhstan
Director of the International Office for Human Rights and the Rule of Law of Kazakhstan