Good afternoon, and thank you for coming.
It is a great pleasure to be here on my first visit to Kyrgyzstan. We set up a Regional Office here in 2008 – the first such UN Human Rights office anywhere in Central Asia – which was in itself a sign of very positive engagement by the Government with the UN human rights system. I believe progress has been made since then, at least in terms of building up a legal and administrative human rights framework, even if there is still clearly a great deal to do in order to complete that framework and translate it into concrete and lasting improvements for all the inhabitants of Kyrgyzstan.
Since arriving here on Sunday, I have met with President Atambayev and with the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Interior. I also held discussions with the Prosecutor-General, the Ombudsman and the Deputy Chair of the Supreme Court.
In addition, I met with human rights defenders and NGOs both here in Bishkek and in Osh, which I visited earlier today, and where I also had discussions with the provincial Governor and the deputy mayor. Since it became an independent state two decades ago, Kyrgyzstan has developed a number of impressive and courageous civil society organizations, which together with independent human rights defenders, lawyers and some journalists, have been performing an absolutely key role in the effort to promote and protect human rights across the country. Unfortunately, some of them are still being subjected to threats, intimidation and violence.
National Human Rights Institutions play a key role in more than 100 countries around the world. Around 70 of them have been given ‘A status' – which means they are in conformity with the international standards known as the Paris Principles. The ‘B status' currently accorded to Kyrgyzstan's Ombudsman means that, despite much useful work, the institution needs to strengthen its independence and effectiveness, especially in terms of its protection functions for those most at risk and most vulnerable such as minorities, women and children.
As I noted in a report delivered to the Human Rights Council in Geneva last week, institutional deficiencies continue to hamper the delivery of justice and undermine the rule of law in Kyrgyzstan. The authorities have a duty to ensure accountability for crimes and abuses, including by the authorities themselves, and guarantee justice for victims and their families.
During my meeting with the President, I commended his Government's professed determination to combat corruption, which is of course a chronic problem throughout the region, including in Kyrgyzstan. Corruption affects every aspect of society and undermines rule of law, the police, the judiciary, and trust in both local and national authorities. It also has a deeply detrimental effect on the social and economic rights of ordinary citizens.
Efforts to boost economic and other forms of development, however have little hope of succeeding without parallel attention to the fundamental human rights which are necessary to restore trust in the state, and maximize the potential of all individuals to contribute to economic growth.
This important truth has underlined much of my discussions here in Kyrgyzstan. Policemen who get away with torture, and prosecutors and judges who effectively turn a blind eye to evidence of torture in the extraction of confessions, or who ignore or allow the intimidation of witnesses or defence lawyers, undermine the integrity of the state. It is also essential that State officials act to protect the rights of all citizens, irrespective of their ethnic or religious identity. The essential tenet of human rights law is that all rights must be equally available to all people all the time. Not to some people some of the time, depending on which group they belong to.
Some developments have taken place, such as legislative reforms, which illustrate the Government's commitment to improve the national human rights protection system. The most serious problem lies in the failure to implement laws and reforms in line with international standards, as well as to act in accordance with Kyrgyzstan's new Constitution.
Take torture as an example: under international law there is an absolute prohibition of torture. This is reflected in the Kyrgyz Constitution, Article 22 of which categorically prohibits torture and all other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment. The Criminal Code also recognizes torture as a crime. Yet we continue to receive evidence of torture being committed by state authorities, including 68 cases of alleged torture or ill-treatment between August 2010 and February 2012 in the context of criminal investigations into the June 2010 violence in Osh and neighbouring regions. This is believed to be only a fraction of the real total.
I was encouraged to hear from the Minister of Interior that in recent months the process of establishing accountability for police officers is starting to produce results, with internal investigations launched in 286 cases, resulting in 38 officers being subjected to criminal investigation, and 47 others being fired from their jobs. It is important that the full details of such cases become known both as a deterrent to other police officers thinking of carrying out acts such as torture or extortion, and as reassurance to the general public who, by the Ministry of Interior's own candid admission, have largely lost trust in what should be a key state institution.
I have congratulated Kyrgyzstan on the adoption on 7 June of the Law on National Center for the Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment – a result of four years of concerted efforts by the Ombudsman, the Parliament, the Ministry of Justice, civil society and the international community. I hope that this important law will soon be signed by the President, and that subsequent steps will ensure that the new torture prevention body it creates will be impartial, independent and effective.
Those who order or commit torture should be investigated, arrested and charged. I have urged the President to lead the effort to eradicate this intolerable and illegal practice by making clear public statements stressing there will be zero tolerance for torture from now on. I also note the strong position the Prosecutor-General has taken on preventing torture, issuing three decrees on the subject since taking up office in April 2011. I have recommended that authority over police detention facilities be transferred from the Ministry of Interior to the State Service on Execution of Sentences, and that all detention facilities be opened to independent monitoring.
Discrimination, especially on ethnic, religious and gender grounds, remains a deeply problematic issue with ethnic and national minorities significantly underrepresented in the executive government and bureaucracy, law enforcement bodies and judiciary.
Discrimination is particularly evident in Osh, where around 50 percent of the population is of Uzbek origin, but there is not a single Uzbek judge among the judiciary. I have myself heard the cries for justice from members of the affected communities who have been victimized twice – while the violence was taking place, and in its aftermath.
This imbalance is reflected in many key national and local institutions including the police and the army. It is perhaps most starkly illustrated by the June 2010 violence, during which around 75 percent of those killed were Uzbek, while some 77 percent of those arrested and charged with crimes relating to the violence were also Uzbek. Having three-quarters of the victims and three-quarters of the alleged perpetrators from the same group, during an episode of inter-ethnic violence, simply does not add up.
The inter-ethnic tensions in Osh are not new. They have been in evidence for many years, with an earlier round of extreme violence taking dozens of lives in 1990. Continued imbalances in the treatment of different groups will simply make further outbreaks inevitable, as they feed a cycle of resentment, mistrust and prejudice on both sides. I am very concerned by the fact that there are still radically different narratives – including a range of conspiracy theories, often accompanied by dangerous rhetoric – about what happened in 2010, and a tendency to attach overwhelming blame to one ethnic group, despite casualty figures that clearly show involvement by both sides.
Accountability for past crimes and human rights violations is essential, but the investigative and judicial processes that lead to it must be fair if the wounds are to heal properly. Accountability and impartiality are both necessary if there is to be lasting national reconciliation.
While in Osh, I discussed the controversial Master Plan to redevelop parts of the city, and urged the local authorities to ensure this is carried out in a way that is transparent, consultative and non-discriminatory. I called on the Mayor to publicly condemn the use of torture and other human rights violations that continue to take place in Osh.
I have urged the central Government to maintain an inclusive and participatory approach in developing the Concept of Ethnic Policy and Consolidation of the People of Kyrgyzstan, the final version of which should be in line with international norms and standards in the areas of human rights and minority rights. Once passed by Parliament – I'm told this may happen in September – it will then be vital to ensure the Concept is translated from promises on paper to concrete actions in real life.
During my talks with the Government, I have raised two cases which arouse many emblematic concerns in relation to fair trial procedures, namely the case of those accused of killing 77 people during the 7 April 2010 protests in Bishkek, and the case of Mr. Azimjan Askarov who was jailed for murder in the wake of the 2010 violence. Like many others, I am deeply concerned by the conduct of these cases and I have asked the Prosecutor-General and Supreme Court to ensure that fair trial guarantees will be respected. I have also urged the relevant authorities to ensure fair trial guarantees are respected in the many other pending cases. The issue of fair trials and due process, as well as the performance of prosecutors and the judiciary, need special attention.
Despite considerable effort in recent years, the situation of women in Kyrgyzstan continues to be a matter of concern, especially in rural areas where discrimination is rife and bride kidnapping is reportedly still common, despite being criminalized. Women also suffer from domestic violence in both rural and urban areas.
I have urged the President to become more deeply and personally involved in many of these key issues. Without his visible and sustained leadership, there is a clear risk that vital changes in the areas of human rights and rule of law will not become reality. The failure to implement human rights laws and reforms will inevitably have a negative impact on the economic development that the government is striving to obtain, not least because it stifles opportunities for domestic initiatives and deters foreign investment. Diversity can and should be one of the engines of economic development, as it is elsewhere. Instead, it is being treated by some politicians and media as though it is a threat to the fabric of the nation. It is vital, while bearing in mind the importance of freedom of expression, that measures are taken to curb hate speech that amounts to incitement to violence.
As part of a concrete effort to address these systemic rule-of-law challenges, I have suggested to the President that he consider personally leading a high-level inter-ministerial coordination team to develop a comprehensive Human Rights Action Plan that can fully implement the recommendations issued by the various UN Human Rights Mechanisms, with support and advice from my office. This would then provide the framework for the Government to work on these issues, enabling it to report significant progress by 2015, when Kyrgyzstan will next be reviewed by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
As Kyrgyzstan is going through its transition process, aiming for long-term stability, peace and economic prosperity, it is essential that justice, accountability and human rights are at the core of this agenda. I have assured the Government that my Office here will continue to contribute to this process in a variety of ways – as we do in many other countries around the world.
If the Government can demonstrate its commitment to implement a comprehensive plan of action on human rights and the rule of law – an action plan that has a real impact on the day-to-day work of key professions such as the police and the judiciary -- I believe this would have great support from the whole UN system, as well as from the donor community. The goodwill of some Government authorities and the determination of civil society organizations, including the Ombudsman's office, to bring about positive change make me hopeful that – despite all the daunting challenges -- together we can map out a path that will make a real difference to the people of Kyrgyzstan, and act as a positive example to other countries in the region and beyond.