The face of ‘new Kazakhstan’ in Geneva

UN Geneva director general Tatiana Valovaya speaks with Kazakh ambassador to the UN Yerlan Alimbayev during the opening of the exhibition “Ordinary Objects” on 25 April, 2022. (Credit: courtesy of Kazakhstan UN mission)

Following President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s announcement on his plans to transform Kazakhstan into a vibrant democracy, the country is keen to improve its image on the international stage.

Stories of women in Kazakhstan beaten by their sons or married to their rapists have been on display since last week in the hallways of the Palais des Nations, at UN headquarters in Geneva. The exhibition, organised by the Kazakhstani mission to the UN, sheds light on the hard yet too often concealed truth of domestic violence, a social phenomenon that spares no society. The accounts depicted in large, black print over white cardboards and accompanied by images of ordinary objects are drawn from real police reports provided by Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Home Affairs.

“As was declared by President Tokayev, the face of new Kazakhstan is not hiding its problems, but showing that we are very much open to fight to eliminate these kinds of violence, especially against women and girls,” Kazakh ambassador to the UN, Yerlan Alimbayev, told Geneva Solutions at the open ceremony.

The initiative was applauded by others at the ceremony. UN Geneva’s director general Tatiana Valovaya welcomed the “creative approach”. UN Women, UNFPA and the Canadian ambassador to the UN, also co-sponsors of the initiative, hailed the recent steps taken by Kazakhstan to promote women’s rights such as eliminating a list of banned professions for women and toughening legislation against domestic violence.

Since his election in 2019, president Tokayev has announced up to 30 measures, including 20 constitutional reforms, intended to pave the way for a “new Kazakhstan”. Among those are restricting presidential powers, widening political participation and eradicating gender-based violence.

Tokayev, a seasoned diplomat and former director general of the UN office in Geneva, is well versed on international human rights standards and has made their incorporation into Kazakh law a priority. Alimbayev, who has also been in Geneva for years describes him as an international-thinking, wise man.

But the deadly civil unrest from January, which has been marred with accusations of torture, use of excessive force and unlawful detentions, has served as a stark reminder of the magnitude of work that the country has ahead.

Calls for international investigations

Demonstrations against fuel price rises, which started out as peaceful protests and spiralled out into mass disturbance and lootings across the country, resulted in hundreds killed, thousands injured and even more arrested, sparking outcry from rights advocates.

In the following days, the UN office for human rights called on authorities to conduct an independent probe into the alleged use of excessive force by police officers sent to quell the protests. Since then, investigations into every arrest are underway, but campaigners have accused the police of dragging on efforts.

In a state of the nation address on 16 march, where Tokayev laid out his plan for a new Kazakhstan, he recognised the need for independent investigations but repeated previous comments that the unrest was instigated by “terrorists”, a version of events that Alimbayev also backs.

While rights groups do not deny that the protests turned violent, they say that it has been used by the government to justify a crackdown on peaceful protesters, journalists and other defenders.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) asked the government to go further and turn investigations into a hybrid probe, with the participation of international experts.

“We need to look at it from a historical perspective. Kazakhstan on many occasions has failed to carry out effective investigations into serious human rights violations and bring those responsible for justice,” said Svetlana Vorobyeva, Central Asia researcher for HRW, making reference to the investigations into deadly clashes in Zhanaozen in 2011, which led to little justice.

Kazakhstan’s human rights commissioner, Elvira Azimova, who was in Geneva to open the exhibition and meet with the UN human rights commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, told Geneva Solutions that most of the investigations carried out until now where regarding those related to theft, while no allegations on the killings and into torture should had been brought to court.

She said investigations into torture should be carried out first to make sure that the evidence gathered by the police and which could be used to prosecute the people who were charged with offences, was not illegally obtained.

Azimova said that her office was working with the general prosecutor to ensure that human rights standards were upheld during the investigations. In 2019, a law was passed to reinforce the independence of the ombudsman, a measure that has been hailed by rights defenders.

Human rights progress

Steps such as this one have been taken in recent years to strengthen human rights standards, including abolishing the death penalty and creating a preventive mechanism against torture. Yevgeniy Zhovtis, director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, told Geneva Solutions that these were important but did not mean a systematic change.

Founded in 1993, the organisation of lawyers has defended political rights since around time Kazakhstan gained independence from the Soviet Union. For Zhovtis, Kazakhstan is still “an authoritarian state, with repressive legislation”.

“The ruling elite and the authorities have to recognise and to accept that sooner or later they could lose elections and be replaced by the opposition. Right now our authorities do not think that they will ever lose power,” he said.

The move to facilitate political participation by reducing the number of required signatures to register as a political party from 50,000 to 3,000, for Zhovtis, does not go far enough. Free elections and an independent media are some of the components that are still missing, he added.

Zhovtis recognised that the government has opened up to discuss with civil society groups about their human rights concerns but said that the results are still lacking.

Vorobyeva said that HRW welcomed the announced plans, but that they remain just that for now. “They need to demonstrate their commitments with concrete steps,” she said, suggesting that they should start with the release of detained political activists, such as unregistered opposition leader Zhanbolat Mamay.

Azimova also pointed out that human rights mechanisms needed to be developed to make sure the new reforms were upheld.

“New Kazakhstan” for the world to see

While the country’s resolve to truly transform Kazakhstan will have to be tested in the months and years to come, for now, the government seems to at least have warmed up to some level of international scrutiny.

On the multilateral front, Kazakhstan has been working hard to convince the world it is serious about its human rights commitments. In October 2021, the country was elected a member of the Human Rights Council on several pledges, including promoting gender equality and women empowerment.

The exhibition held in Geneva is a message to international actors that domestic violence is one of those priorities, Alimbayev said. The government has plans to reduce domestic violence by half by 2050, as announced by human rights commissioner Azimova during the exhibition ceremony. Zhovtis observed that the government has made the most advances on social, economic and cultural rights, which are the least “politically sensitive”.

Kazakhstan has also been increasingly engaging with UN agencies and strengthening its ties with other international partners such as the European Union – a move that has been accelerated since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. Sharing a border with Russia that stretches over 7,600 km has put Kazakhstan in a tricky spot, maintaining trade ties with its major commercial partner while at the same time reassuring Western countries that it will not become a haven to circumvent sanctions.

Several high level officials, including the deputy foreign minister Roman Vassilenko, travelled to Brussels last month to update EU officials on the investigations into the January events as well as to enhance economic ties.

The European Union had expressed concern about the events in January while Switzerland and Liechtenstein called for independent investigations. Vorobyeva noted that pressure from other countries could help push Kazakhstan to uphold its commitments.