The United Nations Human Rights Council will examine Turkmenistan's human rights record in late April or early May 2013. Hopefully the results will be more edifying than when the country was first reviewed under the Universal Periodic Review procedure in December 2008.
At that time, a delegation led by Dr. Shirin Akhmedova appeared in Geneva for the "interactive dialogue" to answer questions from representatives of other governments, based on Turkmenistan's National Report, on documentation about compliance with United Nations human rights treaties, and on a summary of reports from civil society organizations. Fourteen NGOs made submissions about Turkmenistan, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR).
According to the official UN records, Dr. Akhmedova "declared unwavering implementation of the international obligations undertaken by the State." She said Turkmenistan "is carrying out broad and important reforms in education, health, social security, in the legal sphere and in improving the well-being of people, including those living in remote areas of the country." She said "the rights and freedoms of the citizens of Turkmenistan have been broadened." (The last point is a bit odd, given that the people living in Turkmenistan have human rights regardless of the policies of the State; it is the obligation of the State to honor and protect those rights, but it is highly questionable if the State has the capacity to "broaden" those rights.) She stressed that "Turkmenistan is a socially oriented state."
During the discussions that followed, 35 delegations took the floor. This is a significantly low participation in the review of a UN member that has among the worst human rights records in the world. By comparison, when Japan was reviewed in 2012, about 80 states made interventions. Japan generally respects human rights, and while numerous delegations complained about use of the death penalty there, most used the opportunity to praise Japan for its support of UN institutions.
Some UN members tried to hold the Turkmen delegation accountable for abuses of human rights. Ten delegations openly criticized Turkmenistan for abuses of human rights defenders, a politicized judiciary, corruption, poor women's and children's rights protections, trafficking in human beings, and many other problems. Other delegations made anodyne bureaucratic interventions about technical compliance issues. But the majority of delegations that intervened praised Turkmenistan, focusing especially on "reforms." Not a single delegation mentioned that under the country's rulers, hospitals have been closed, epidemics like tuberculosis have been ignored, and medical standards have been debased in an effort to pretend there are no health problems, although information about these problems was made available to UN members.
Turkmenistan is one of the least free states on earth, where basic civil and political rights are not recognized. Its citizens live in isolation, and the international community has little knowledge of the real situation. It is one of the handful of states around the world, including Iran and North Korea, that deny international NGOs access. The 2008 UN review of the country did not reflect this reality. In terms of international concern, it clearly showed that few states are ready to criticize Turkmenistan (the United States did not even bother to intervene), and that Turkmenistan has many friends around the world that will stand behind and legitimate its clumsy assertions about human rights and reforms.
At the end of the 2008 review, Turkmenistan did accept several recommendations to abide by its legal obligation to respect the freedom of expression, the rights of non-governmental organizations, religious freedom and the freedom of movement. These are the texts of recommendations Turkmenistan accepted:
To take effective measures to allow independent non-governmental organizations to register and work freely (Poland); to reform the registration process to make it easier for organizations to register and work freely (Netherlands); to ensure that members of civil society are allowed, free of harassment, to meet with representatives of foreign media and Governments and international organizations (Germany); To adopt adequate measures for the protection and promotion of religious freedom, in order to ensure effective freedom of worship for all religious communities (Italy); to take measures to grant effective and unhindered enjoyment of the freedom of religion (Germany); To fully respect the rights of everyone to be free to leave and return to their own country, in conformity with article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Turkmenistan is party (Norway)
Since 2008, Turkmenistan has taken further steps to burnish its international fa"ade. More Potemkin-village type "reforms" have been made, and no doubt, when the country once more comes before the United Nations Human Rights Council, these will be presented and praised. At the same time, over the past four years, UN human rights machinery has increasingly focused on social and economic rights and so-called "Third Generation Rights" that require long- term, positive state actions to implement, and where the state can always show good intentions. The space for consideration of fundamental civil and political rights, without which the people of Turkmenistan will remain hostages to the whims of their rulers, has further contracted.
All the same, it can only be hoped that in 2013, a few members of the United Nations will again see beyond the brazen pronouncements of Turkmen diplomats and ask them why, after four long and dark years, the OSCE participating State has no free press, and no independent civil society; why religious groups still face restrictions and citizens cannot freely move and immigrate. If they do, perhaps a few of those inside the country, who find ways to penetrate the information blockade, will at least know that, under the thick blanket of hypocrisy covering human rights discourse, a small ray of hope remains for a free and democratic state.
Aaron Rhodes is a founder of the Freedom Rights Project (www.freedomrights.info). He was Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights 1993-2007.