As the year 2014 drew to a close, we interviewed Askar Shakirov, Kazakhstan’s Commissioner for Human Rights (Ombudsman), to talk about achievements and challenges in this critical area and his plans for the future.
As the main human rights advocate of the country, how would you describe 2014?
Speaking of human rights, it was undoubtedly a landmark year. One of the most significant events was the announcement by PresidentNursultan Nazarbayev of the Nurly Zhol new economic policy, aimed at the effective implementation of the constitutional rights of the people of Kazakhstan.
New versions of the Criminal Code, Criminal Executive Code and new Criminal Procedure Code were adopted [this year] providing humanisation of justice, expansion of alternative measures of punishment, strengthening the judiciary, enhancing the principles of equality of parties and fighting against such challenges as corruption, medical crimes and attacks on motherhood and childhood.
The practical implementation started of the Law on the National Preventive Mechanism, established in accordance with the obligations arising from the Constitution and the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. The essence of this conceptually-new-for-us institute of rights protection is to create a system of independent monitoring of human rights observance in closed institutions.
The mechanism introduces unrestricted access of civil society to such institutions for the first time in Kazakhstan, as its members, except for the coordinator and the Commissioner for Human Rights, exclusively represent the non-governmental sector. It is a significant achievement of our country, practical demonstration of the commitment to high human rights standards, indicator of the maturity of the civil society and a sign of trust. Kazakhstan is the only [Commonwealth of Independent States] CIS country which established such a mechanism in full compliance with the norms and standards of international law.
Another event which reflected Kazakhstan’s commitment to international law priorities was a decision to establish the Ombudsman for Children’s Rights. The state has a positive working experience of establishing specialised ombudsmen, including banking, investment, insurance and corporate ombudsmen of the Kazakhstan Temir Zholy National Company and Samruk Kazyna Sovereign Wealth Fund.
Other important adopted legal acts directly affecting human rights include the Law On Road Traffic, which controls the daily exercise of the rights of virtually every citizen of Kazakhstan as a pedestrian, driver or passenger.
This year the Code of Administrative Offences and the Law On Trade Unions were also adopted, while laws against extremism and terrorism and domestic violence were significantly amended. Kazakhstan ratified the international conventions on the Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health, establishing a procedure for determining the minimum wage and its protection.
What contributed to such productive work?
First of all, these achievements are the result of the targeted policies aimed at improving the rights and freedoms of Kazakhstan’s citizens. Another important aspect is reports to the international structures of the United Nations, in particular in 2014 to the Human Rights Council and the Committee against Torture. Members of these authoritative international organisations commended the results of the implemented commitment of our country in the field of human rights and we will continue the work in this direction following the recommendations.
Referring to the human rights process in our country, the high level of cooperation between government agencies and NGOs should be highlighted. A unique mediator role of the ombudsman in the legal system, enhanced with the launch of the National Preventive Mechanism, promotes the process.
We attract international partners, in particular in the framework of the implementation of joint projects with the OSCE Centre in Astana, UN Children’s Fund, Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Penal Reform International. The work of participants of the National Preventive Mechanism and members of the civil society receives the support of the Prosecutor General’s Office, Ministry of Interior Affairs and Ministry of Justice.
In particular, I would underline a recent open letter from the Commissioner for Human Rights to the Minister of Education and Science on the issue of violence and other violations of children’s rights in schools. It raises specific problems identified by monitoring and it should be stressed that the ministry and its head personally responded, agreeing with our proposals.
This dialogue, bringing together efforts of the ombudsman’s office, government, civil society and international partners, provided the impetus for the development of the Interagency Action Plan to prevent violence and abuse against children for 2015-2016.
Human Rights Day is celebrated to commemorate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly in 1948. You have already mentioned the international partnerships. Elaborate on this direction of your work.
In recent years, the Commissioner for Human Rights in Kazakhstan has been consistently integrating into the international ombudsmen community and has now become a full member of the universal human rights movement. In 2012, we joined the International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and this September joined the Asia-Pacific Forum of Ombudsmen. Today, we study the experience of other countries, while they themselves are beginning to consult us on such issues as children’s rights and violence in schools.
In general, Kazakhstan participates in almost all major agreements in the field of human rights. We are actively involved in human rights work within the UN, [the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe] OSCE and [the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation] OIC. We emphasise human rights issues in the agreement to enhance the partnership and cooperation between Kazakhstan and the European Union. This vector of our work with foreign colleagues reflects the fact that human rights today have acquired a universal character.
Currently, the objects of interstate cooperation are not only virtually all categories of human rights, which previously were an exclusive competence of states, but also new challenges. For example, expansion of extremist ideologies. Recently, our society has been shocked by videos spread about young Kazakh citizens in the zone of the Syrian conflict. Such facts of child recruitment and brainwashing with the ideology of intolerance and violence once again confirm the need to strengthen international cooperation in order to solve related problems.
Military conflicts amass violations of human rights. In addition, they give rise to refugee flows that could cause a humanitarian catastrophe in the host country. We also should not forget about the possible threats to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states, where military conflicts occur.
Equally disturbing are cross-border labour migration flows. The imbalance leads to an increase in crime, unemployment and social tensions in the host country. This is a pressing issue for many states. Nowadays, we see many countries tightening legislation in an attempt to cope with a wave of people seeking a better lot in a foreign land. Even in the EU, the debate raises sharp contradictions.
Another challenge is international unilateral coercive measures, so-called sanctions which, in addition to political and economic aspects, have a negative impact on the rights of ordinary citizens.
All of this suggests the need to intensify joint efforts and develop mechanisms to counter global threats. Human rights could be the ideological and conceptual basis for such activities. An initiative of states, which are perceived as unbiased and respected members of the international community, could give a definite impetus to the process.
The above-mentioned challenges and threats, in fact, are extremely relevant. What place does our country have or can it take in the process of addressing them?
In Kazakhstan, human rights are a key component of the state policy. Implementation of the initiatives of President Nazarbayev is always aimed primarily at protecting the rights and interests of the citizens. It comes from his status as a guarantor of the Constitution and its first article, which proclaimed human rights a core value.
The Nurly Zhol new economic policy includes unprecedented support of social, labour, housing and economic rights through the development of production, improvement of the banking sector, overhaul of transport and logistics, industrial, energy, housing and social infrastructure, utilities, networks and water heating and creation of over 200,000 jobs.
Kazakhstan has successfully overcome the first wave of the global economic crisis and is now using its experience as a preventive measure confronting a deteriorating global environment. Our country has great potential to promote initiatives for international cooperation in the field of human rights. President Nazarbayev has repeatedly stressed the need for joint action against global threats and even greater use of the potential of integration in the Eurasian space, broadening its scope and format.
Kazakhstan has clearly demonstrated the possibility of disclosure of this potential during its chairmanship in the OSCE and hosting the OSCE Astana summit. The Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions held in Astana also gained international recognition.
During Kazakhstan’s chairmanship, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation was reformed and an OIC Permanent Independent Commission for Human Rights was established. The President of Kazakhstan identified the prospects of joint increase of welfare of the peoples of the Islamic region, indicating that the OIC countries, which controlled 70 percent of the world’s energy resources, accounted for only 7.5 percent of world GDP and 11.2 percent of the global trade.
Today, economic, political, environmental and any other international threats are already identified as challenges for human rights. Priority measures to prevent international challenges to human rights are the key to the success of states, while late actions can lead to fatal consequences.