Last Updated: Thursday, 26 November 2015, 08:53 GMT

Kazak Human Rights Reforms Under Fire

Publisher Institute for War and Peace Reporting
Publication Date 20 May 2011
Cite as Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Kazak Human Rights Reforms Under Fire, 20 May 2011, available at: [accessed 26 November 2015]
Comments Timur Kumenov
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

With one year to go before the deadline for completing Kazakstan's three-year National Human Rights Action Plan, rights activists say the authorities have done far too little to implement it. 

They argue that work on the plan is not on schedule, and that on past practice, reforms on paper do not easily translate into changes to the way laws are implemented on the ground.

Introduced in May 2009, the National Human Rights Action Plan sets out a list of steps that need to be take to improve Kazakstan's legislation and law-enforcement practice, and also to make the public more awareness of human rights issues. The measures are in part based on recommendations made by international organisations.

The success of work done on the action plan so far was contested by human rights activists and government officials at an April 20 meeting in the capital Astana.

Representative of the authorities defended their record at the meeting.

The secretary of the state Commission for Human Rights, Tastemir Abishev, said more than 40 per cent of recommendations had already been implemented.

In terms of legislation, he noted that Kazakstan had passed new laws on policing, sexual equality, domestic violence, and refugees, and ratified international agreements such as one concerning the status of migrant workers in former Soviet states.

Human rights defenders interviewed by IWPR argued that progress on the action plan was lagging behind, particularly in areas like media freedom and systems to end torture in places of detention. One of the main obstacles, they said, was that there were no mechanisms to make recommendations mandatory rather than voluntary.

"The National Human Rights Action Plan does not have the status of a legislative document which government agencies are obliged to act on," Yuri Gusakov, director of the Karaganda regional branch of the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, said. "There are no strict deadlines for implementing the work, and responsibilities have not been assigned, so that no executive body has taken it upon itself to enact the provisions of the national plan."

This was in an environment where the main oversight bodies – the State Commission for Human Rights and the national ombudsman's office – exerted only limited influence. They offered advice but not did not exercise mandatory powers, and they in turn were not subject to scrutiny, Gusakov said.

With regulation weak and corruption endemic in the legal system, he added, "People have no confidence in the law, so many issues are resolved by evading state-imposed regulations."

The head of the Centre for Legal Policy Studies, Nazgul Yergalieva, cited the continuing use of torture as an area where policy statements were at odds with reality.

Torture by agents of state was made a separate criminal offence in 2002, and evidence extracted under duress is not admissible in court. Management of prisons has been transferred from the interior ministry, which controls the police, to the ministry of justice, and arrest warrants are now issued by judges rather than prosecutors.

These undoubted improvements to the law have not, however, stamped out the use of torture.

Yergalieva compared the 263 allegations received by the NGO Coalition Against Torture in the first ten months of 2010 with the small number – just four – who were actually convicted of the offence. She added that courts were still admitting evidence which defendants claimed had been extracted under torture.

Yergalieva argues that Kazakstan's law-enforcement agencies still see their role as being the punitive arm of the state, rather than neutral upholders of the law.

"The main measure of their effectiveness is still the rate of solving crimes, not the protection of citizens' constitutional rights," she said.

(For more on this issue, see Unprecedented Torture Trial in Kazakstan and Kazakstan Needs Laws to Underpin Torture Ban.)

Other commentators raised similar criticisms about the human rights action plan with regard to freedom of expression.

Tamara Kaleeva, head of the media support group Adil Soz, says the measures included in the plan are largely declaratory and omit some of the most pressing issues.

"The real obstacles that hinder freedom of expression still exist," she said. (Media Freedom "Worse" in Kazakstan's OSCE Year looks at some of the key concerns.)

Kaleeva and other media rights activists have welcomed recent changes to the law restricting the use of libel actions against journalists and the penalties that can be applied, but say they do not go far enough. (Defamation issues are covered in Kazak Libel Law Changes Not Enough.)

"Libel and slander still exist as criminal offences that can result in imprisonment for up to three years," Kaleeva said.

Timur Kumenov is the pseudonym of a journalist in Kazakstan.

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

Copyright notice: © Institute for War & Peace Reporting

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