Human Rights

Nation-building in Kazakhstan after the fall of the Soviet Union

Occupied by Mongol and Russian Empires and forming part of the USSR, the question of independent Kazakh identity has always been fraught with complications. Soviet repression in the 1920s and 30s, resulting in crises of starvation, mass emigration, and purges of the Kazakh intelligentsia, led to a 38% decline in the population of Kazakhstan. Described in J. Melich's article on nation-building and cultural policy in Kazakhstan as Stalin's personal "dumping ground for ethnic groups whose loyalties were in doubt", in the 1930s and 40s millions of Russian political prisoners and "alien" ethnic groups were exiled to Kazakhstan. 

Decades of war, famine, and Russian resettlements took their toll. By the 1960s, the native Kazakhs were an ethnic minority on their own soil, comprising just 30% of the population. Ethnic dominance became mirrored in linguistic dominance, and, even today, Russian is the dominant language of Kazakhstan. 

Twenty five years after the fall of the Soviet Union and the country's Communist-era leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is still in power. Severely criticised for his authoritarian style of leadership by Human Rights Watch, Nazarbayev has also been implicated in numerous human rights scandals, most notably his harsh suppression of political opposition. 

In the country's 2004 elections, opposition parties which were officially permitted to participate in the elections won just one seat. Subsequent victories in 2005, 2011, and 2015, saw Nazarbayev attain landslide victories of 90%, 96%, and 98%. Nevertheless, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe declared that the Kazakhstani elections fell short of international standards. While standards of living for ordinary Kazakhs continue to worsen, according to The Guardian, Nazarbayev has "amassed a fortune, making him one of the richest men in the world".  

The government's attempts to legitimise itself and its present power are implicit in the attempts to both reconnect with its traditional past and look to future in creating a modern vision of Kazakhstan. The government's concern with establishing a sense of Kazakh heritage is reflected in the rise in the number of national museums from 87 to 224 in the years 1995-2013. As an institution promoting patriotism and heritage, the inauguration of national museums in Kazakhstan within the context of nation-building is hardly surprising. 

Another manifestation of this nation-building is the country's young capital, Astana. Awash with futuristic architecture, Astana, meaning “capital” in Kazakh, certainly gives the sense of a purpose built capital. Naming the capital after Nazarbayev himself, the most popular alternative after "Astana", reflects the President's centrality in this creation of a national brand. 

The Bayterek monument and observation tower in Astana is one of the most spectacular expressions of this nation-building. 105m in height, enormous white girders branch out like arms of a tree to support a 22m wide golden sphere. The structure symbolises the ancient Kazakh folktale of a mythical tree of life in which a magical bird lays an egg containing the secrets of happiness. An observation deck inside the golden "egg" offers a panorama of Astana's skyline, dominated by President Nazarbayev's sumptuous presidential palace. After soaking up the view, visitors are invited to place their palms in a gilded hand print of Nazarbayev and make a wish. 

Another example of Astana's cutting-edge architecture is the Khan Shatyr shopping centre. Alongside its own flume ride and a 500m long monorail, the centre also boats of an artificial beach, complete with sand straight from the Maldives. The centre's yurt-like silhouette can be seen, like the Bayterek monument, as part of the deliberate fusion of neo-futurist innovation and ancient Kazakh tradition that is key to the national "image" sculpted, from above, by the Kazakh government. 

You need only drive a few kilometres out of the city, before the utopian skyscrapers and shiny glass structures come metaphorically crashing and crumbling down and you are confronted with the crushingly flat, undeveloped, expanse that characterizes most of Kazakhstan's remaining landscape. 

With such disparity between city and provincial life and between standards of living for ordinary citizens versus government leaders, the question arises of to what extent Kazakhstan's top-down nation building is in fact based around the needs, desires, and traditions of the Kazakhstani people.  

Hypocrisy at the Human Rights Council: backroom deals and the elevation of repressive Saudi Arabia

Amelia Cooper

The hypocrisy of the UN Human Rights Council has once again revealed itself, with the appointment of Saudi Arabia as the chair on a panel of independent experts.  

From high profile cases, such as the flogging and imprisonment of Raif Badawi, to systematic and entrenched discrimination against women, minorities and dissidents, the Kingdom demonstrates its disdain for human rights and civil liberties on a daily basis. 

Despite this, however, the country enjoys member status at the UN Human Rights Council. Not only does their position undermine a fundamental membership condition, to ‘uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights’, news recently broke that gaining their position included a clandestine vote-trading deal with Britain. 

Leaked diplomatic cables from the Saudi Arabian foreign ministry to the British state that “the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would support the candidacy of the United Kingdom to the membership of the council for the period 2014-2015 in exchange for the support of the United Kingdom to the candidacy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”. Another cable revealed that Saudi Arabia transferred $100,000 to Britain for “expenditures resulting from the campaign to nominate the Kingdom for membership of the human rights council for the period 2014-2016”. How this money has been spent remains unclear; however, these cables suggest that Britain was essentially contracted to bolster the reputation of one of the most repressive and abusive states in the world. As such, Britain is complicit in the whitewashing of Saudi Arabia’s reputation and the subversion of the foundational principles of the Human Rights Council. 

As if this isn’t bad enough, Saudi Arabia has just been selected as head of a five-person panel of independent experts, charged with appointing experts to fill UN mandate positions. It is a highly influential role, with the power of shaping approaches to thematic and country-specific roles through the selection of specific candidates. Saudi Arabia’s appointment has been met with anger and indignation – justifiably so – by activists worldwide. Ensaf Haidar, wife of Raif Badawi and leader of an international campaign to free him, said that giving the position to Saudi Arabia was effectively “a green light to start flogging [him] again”.

Saudi Arabia’s position as a member of the Council makes an absolute mockery of the UN system, underscored by the dubious circumstances in which they were elected. Their recent elevation, however, pours salt in the wounds of those languishing under a repressive and brutal state. 

HRC30: Overcoming schismatic politics

Amelia Cooper

‘It was the way he lay: asleep, terminal, so profoundly sad – as if by lying in supplication before the waves that killed him he was asking for a replay, with a different outcome this time; and his socks and little shoes told us he was ready to try life again. But his cheek on the soft sand whispered otherwise, it made us choke. Shamed and disgraced, the world wept before the body of this little boy.

These speeches, these sessions, these protests by so many of us here for a world more humane and more dignifying of the rights of all humans, all humans – what good are they, when this happens? Not just once, not just to this tiny boy, Aylan Al Kurdi, but to so many across the world: the horror they experience, relayed daily to us through the news media, shreds our hopes for some mercy, some relief.’ 

This heartbreaking statement, delivered by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights at the opening of the Human Rights Council’s 30th Session, preceded a direct plea for States to take swift action and make practical commitments to alleviate the current global tragedies. 

We are at a crisis point, and it is not one of capacity, but one of politics. 

With regard to the refugee crisis, the pernicious narratives perpetuated by Western media about the ‘swarms’ of migrants are simply incorrect. The so-called ‘influx’ of asylum seekers and migrants who have entered Europe via the Mediterranean or Balkans this year makes up approximately 0.068% of Europe’s population. The combination of fearmongering, xenophobic tabloids and outright apathy to the immense loss of life that has taken place both on Syrian (and surrounding) soil and in the seas around Europe has been abhorrent. 

However, while there have been noted failures in the international response to the Syrian refugee crisis, silent tragedies continue to rage across the globe. The compassionate epiphany triggered by Aylan Al Kurdi’s photograph means nothing if we continue to turn a blind eye to crimes against humanity committed by the state in Eritrea, or the exodus of 180,000 people from Burundi, or the ongoing shelling of residential areas on both sides of the contact line in Ukraine. High Commissioner Zeid’s statement is a tragic list of conflict and pain, noting many cases which have eluded our consciences and newspapers thus far. 

The Human Rights Council provides a forum for discussion and debate of these issues; however, it requires both scrutiny and engagement to function to the best of its capacity. The High Commissioner implored states to transform verbal promises into actual implementation: you, too, can demand that national representatives are held to account for the promises that they make. As this session continues, the Council can be treated as a springboard for discussion of cases that would otherwise slip by unnoticed. 

We live in an increasingly interconnected world, but the current crises have seen the invocation of geographical distance and identity politics to sever our basic ties of humanity. It is our duty to resist such divisive tactics, and to instead redress this political turning point through a demonstration of solidarity and strength with our brothers and sisters worldwide. 

China's New Crackdown on Human Rights Law


On the night of 9th July, Wang Yu, a Fengrui lawyer, frantically sent her friends a text message saying that the internet connection and electricity had been cut off at her home and that people were trying to break in. Her disappearance early next morning signalled the beginning of a nationwide crackdown in the latest example of China’s human rights violations. Ms. Wang’s clients include practitioners of the religious group Falun Gong, who have been systematically persecuted by the Chinese Communist Party since July 1999, when the CCP launched an initiative to eradicate the practice.

Ms. Wang, whose whereabouts remain unknown, gained notoriety for becoming the first female Chinese human rights lawyer and defending Uighur economist Ilham Tothi, who is now serving a life sentence on separatism charges, and high-profile rights activist Cao Shunli, who died in police custody. Since Ms. Wang’s arrest over 100 human rights lawyers and activists have been detained or questioned. According to the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, many of those detained had signed a public letter calling for Ms. Wang’s release. Ms. Wang worked for Beijing Fengrui Law Firm which has subsequently been labelled as a “criminal platform” by state-backed media. Four lawyers from the firm, as well as an assistant and a lawyer’s husband, have been "criminally detained" for "seriously violating the law", the article said without specifying any charges.

Feng Zhenghu, a veteran human rights activist based in Shanghai, was one of those questioned by the authorities. He told CNN “the government asked us not to poke our nose into this business, to ignore the missing lawyers”. Feng also hinted at the cause of the crackdown stating the authorities “wanted us to know that they don’t want us to post or repost anything on this matter on the Internet”, showing the Chinese authorities’ fear of public mobilisation and damage to public opinion. With social protests and strikes on the rise and uncertain economic waters ahead, this crackdown sets a worrying precedent.

Furthermore, China unveiled a new “National Security Law” earlier this year which was widely viewed as giving authorities sweeping new powers to suppress human rights by defining ‘national security’ in broad and vague terms. The U.S. State Department released a statement on Monday expressing deep concern over the detentions and pointing out that the new law’s being used as “a legal façade to commit human rights abuses”. It’s nothing new for the U.S and China to trade human rights allegations, such as the lengthy report announced last month by the official Xinhua news agency drawing attention to “grim problems of racial discrimination” and the use of “cruel tortures indiscriminately” within the United States. Nevertheless, in this instance criticism has been widespread with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both condemning China’s actions.

According to the Ministry of Public Security, the official charge against the lawyers is “disrupting public order and seeking profits by illegally hiring protesters and swaying court decisions in the name of defending justice and public interests”. There are two clear problems with this. Firstly, and most obviously, the widespread outrage and protest is not hired but very real and simply goes to show that the increasingly desperate security measures being enacted are in fact having the inverse effect and stoking public anger. Secondly, it seems likely that these arrests were made to deter foreign “meddling” in China’s internal affairs., a state-backed Shanghai-based news site, cited links between the firm and U.S. Representative Chris Smith, the Republican chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees global human rights. Smith issued a statement confirming that he had indeed met with some of the lawyers. Thus, the aim of China’s crackdown is twofold, to suppress protest within the country and to deter foreign governments and NGOs from attempting to gather information on human rights transgressions. Just as the internal suppression is in fact fuelling the fire, the international community must not let China’s actions deter them from probing deeper into the ramifications of this “New Law”.

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The 29th Session of the Human Rights Council: Round-Up

Amelia Cooper

The 29th Session of the Human Rights Council closed last week, following three weeks of discussions that have culminated in the adoption of twenty-five resolutions with varying degrees of probity. In addition, six new Special Procedures mandate holders were appointed to address issues including, inter alia, the right to privacy, violence against women (including its causes and consequences), and the human rights of people with albinism. 

It is near impossible to provide a brief and cohesive summary of the Council’s session, due to the breadth of its agenda; however, there is an excellent report by the Universal Rights Group and a collection of detailed updates by FIDH for those seeking a more detailed analysis. Some outcomes are particularly notable in opening new fields for greater scrutiny (though that is not to say that they are more important than other resolutions adopted), such as: 

  • The passage of a resolution focused on the protection of migrants, including those in transit;
  • The passage of a resolution focused on the persecution of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar;
  • The passage of a landmark resolution condemning and seeking to combat child, early and forced marriage, the first of its kind; 
  • The adoption of a resolution focused on ensuring accountability for the violations of international law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, following the release of a report by the independent Commission of Inquiry into the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. The USA has received condemnation from states and CSOs alike for being the only member state to vote against this resolution; 
  • The renewal of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea, which will facilitate further fact-finding into and human rights monitoring of a deeply troubled state; and 
  • The creation of a Commission of Inquiry into human rights violations committed in South Sudan. 

What merits specific and focused discussion, however, is the presence of what FIDH President Karim Lahidji referred to as a ‘full-fledged offensive’ by a coalition of conservative states seeking to ‘deny the universality of human rights’. Headed by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Russia, this group of States has become increasingly active in attempting to curtail and recharacterise human rights with subjective concepts such as ‘defamation’ and ‘traditional values’. 

This session, debates over three resolutions were the epicentres of attacks on universality, pertaining to violence against women, freedom of expression and the protection of the family. Amendments proposed by a number of states challenged the very meaning of equal human rights for all and threatened the protection afforded to individuals regardless of their sex, gender identity or sexual orientation. 

With regard to the resolution on violence against women, Egypt, Russia and a number of Gulf states submitted amendments to withdraw condemnation of marital rape and intimate partner violence. Though these amendments were fortunately voted down, the rights of the individual within a family or domestic context were threatened by the renewal of the resolution on the protection of the family. 

Despite its seemingly innocuous – and almost quaint – sounding title, the resolution shrouds a pernicious agenda that refuses, first, to recognise that the family may exist in diverse forms, including having same sex parents or child-headed families (indeed, proposed amendments to include such a fact were blocked with the invocation of the Procedural No Action motion, a device used to block substantive debate). Secondly, it fails to acknowledge that human rights violations can occur within a family context (as illustrated in the resolution on violence against women), and represents a shift away from individual rights. It is a resolution that stands in stark contrast to the ideals that the Human Rights Council was formed upon: rather than promoting equality and non-discrimination, it enshrines their antithesis. 

The concept of ‘defamation’ reared its ugly head once again during negotiations on the proposed resolution to protect artistic expression, which has since been abandoned. As previously discussed here, moving away from the defamation agenda with the passage of Resolution 16/18 was widely celebrated; I sincerely hope that it does not gain traction in coming sessions. 

As ever, therefore, a mixed bag of results from the Council: some successes which deserve to be celebrated, but also a number of failures that require public and widespread condemnation. It is clear that we cannot be complacent: if anything, public vigilance is required more than ever to ensure that the founding principles of the Council continue to provide the basis of its work, and that the attempts to undermine universal standards are soundly rebuffed. The Council will meet again in September – it is incumbent upon the international community to reaffirm the principle of human rights for all, and on us to hold the Council and our governments to account for doing so.