Today the EU’s annual Human Rights Dialogue with Turkmenistan will be held in Brussels to discuss the state of human rights in this Central Asian country. Turkmenistan’s government, which is looking for closer relations with the EU, has recently taken a number of steps said to be aimed at improving compliance with international human rights standards, such as by adopting a first-ever national human rights action plan, announcing that it will establish a human rights ombudsman’s office, and elaborating and bringing into effect new legislation. However, as documented by Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) and International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) in a briefing paper for today’s meeting, to date there have been no real improvements in practice.
Fundamental rights and freedoms continue to be seriously infringed in Turkmenistan and it remains one of the most repressive countries in the world, where the president keeps a firm grip on power and no dissent is allowed. TIHR’s and IPHR’s briefing paper highlights current key human rights concerns that the EU has been asked to raise with the Turkmenistani authorities. These concerns include:
- Currently a reform is under way for the stated purpose of bringing Turkmenistan’ constitution into line with international standards. However, the new draft constitution would also allow President Berdymuhammedov to stay in power for life. The personality cult surrounding him has continued to escalate, with the recent presentation of a book on tea drinking authored by him treated as a matter of highest state importance.
- Although censorship is formally prohibited by law, the government tightly controls the media, and continues to dismantle private satellite dishes used to access foreign TV- and radio channels. In spite of pledges to improve internet access, internet penetration is still less than 15 percent, costs remain prohibitive and access to news sites and social media sites is restricted.
- Journalists contributing to foreign media, civil society activists, and others who dare to openly challenge government policies continue to be intimidated and harassed. Dissident voices who have fled the country and now live in exile have been subjected to growing pressure.
- The new national human rights action plan says that “favourable conditions” will be created for NGOs. However, so far, the government has focused on supporting the role of government-controlled organizations and has not taken any steps to enable truly independent civil society organizations to operate in the country.
- The overhanging threat of reprisals for any criticism of government policies discourages public protests. At the same time, citizens continue to be forcibly mobilized for government-orchestrated events aimed at praising the regime and its leader, such as during the recent month of health in April 2016.
- Thousands of people are still believed to feature on unofficial blacklists of individuals banned from traveling abroad, and access to the country remains restricted. The new national human rights action plan states that UN human rights experts will be invited to visit the country: up to now over a dozen requests for visits by such experts have been denied.
- A new religion law adopted in March 2016 bans unregistered religious groups, while tightening registration requirements. It also imposes serious restrictions on basic religious activities. There is still no alternative to compulsory military service, and conscientious objectors risk punishment, despite repeated calls by the UN Human Rights Committee to change this practice.
- As previously, the justice system in Turkmenistan lacks independence and transparency and is open to political abuse. Dozens of individuals imprisoned after flawed and politically motivated trials remain disappeared, including individuals convicted after the alleged assassination attempt on late President Niyazov in 2002.
- An increasing number of forced evictions have been carried out as part of government construction projects ahead of the Asian Olympic Games due to be held in Ashgabat in 2017. Evictions are often carried out at short notice, and many evicted families have not been granted adequate compensation or appropriate, alternative accommodation.
More details on these issues can be found in TIHR’s and IPHR’s briefing paper for the EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue. Download the briefing paper here.
The EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue is taking place in the context of a renewed discussion about the “normalization” of EU-Turkmenistan relations. An EU-Turkmenistan Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), which provides a legal framework for cooperation in different areas, was signed in 1998 but has yet to be ratified. Because of the lack of concrete human rights improvements in Turkmenistan and the failure of its government to make progress on benchmarks set out in 2009 as a condition for ratifying the PCA[i], the European Parliament has been withholding its consent to the agreement. In an open letter sent last month, 29 NGOs from 15 different countries called on Members of the European Parliament to continue to defer approval of the PCA until Turkmenistan’s government meets the Parliament’s human rights benchmarks. The signatories noted that moving forward on the PCA in the absence of such progress “would squander one of the key levers of influence the EU can have on human rights in Turkmenistan.” The PCA needs to be ratified by all EU member states and the European Parliament before it can enter into force.
[i] The benchmarks set out by the European Parliament include: the unconditional release of all political prisoners; the removal of obstacles to free travel; free access for the International Red Cross and other independent monitors; and improvements in civil liberties, including for nongovernmental organizations in Turkmenistan.