Tuesday, January 24, 2012

International Institutions: the Right Mechanism to Promote Human Rights?


Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) 2012 “World Report” was released yesterday, documenting extensive violations of human rights by regimes and individuals in every corner of the globe. Central Asian states were among the worst violators, according to HRW. The report labeled Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as some of the “most repressive governments, not only in the region but in the world.” Putin spearheads a form of “soft authoritarianism,” which is the same term applied to the Nazarbayev regime in Kazakhstan.

While the well-researched report thoroughly documents human rights abuses, it falls short in a few areas of policy recommendations.

In “After the Fall: Hopes and Lessons 20 Years After the Collapse of the Soviet Union,” Rachel Denber advocates the importance of international institutions in encouraging states to mobilize domestic reforms. Russia, Ukraine and the South Caucuses states, for example, were offered membership in the Council of Europe in exchange for domestic human rights reforms. In the economic sphere, Russia joined the World Trade Organization in December, after years of international negotiations and internal market reforms. Institutions can play an active role in transforming the distribution of powers within regimes, ensuring a commitment to transparency, the rule of law, economic freedoms and respect for individual human rights.

But there is a limit to institutions: sovereignty. Most of the examples in which institutions have a transformative effect on former soviet states apply to Eastern Europe. Central Asian states are members of various international organizations, but such groupings are usually regional associations through which states pursue their foreign policy objectives. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), for example, was created in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and continues to be a mechanism through which Russia exerts influence over its near abroad. At the CSTO’s December 2011 meeting, members passed an agreement prohibiting any individual CSTO member from hosting a foreign military base on its territory without the full consent of all other CSTO members. This agreement gives Russia the authority to prohibit the establishment of an American base (at Manas, Kyrgyzstan for example) under international law.

Throughout former-Soviet Central Asia, international and regional institutions have adopted an economic and security orientation, rather than a human rights-based approach. The most successful organizations in the region, in terms of organization (convening regular meetings and agendas), implementation of policies (SCO is committed to security and has opened up an anti-terrorism center in Tashkent) include the SCO, CSTO and EurAsEC. Regional organizations with a human-rights agenda and courts, such as the CIS, are rarely used for judicial purposes. The CIS Economic Court, for example, was used for the first time in several years in 2010 when Belarus sued Russia for levying export duties on oil products. Further, the recent expansion of the EurAsEC Customs Union provides a framework for the economic integration of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.

Despite Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010, the country did not undergo a significant change in domestic safeguards for human rights. Kazakhstan is certainly way ahead of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in terms of human rights protection. I certainly loved spending time in Kazakhstan and did not feel like I was in a “softly authoritarian” state. With that said, there are areas for improvement in Kazakhstan’s human rights record (as there are in all states), but institutions are not necessarily the way to go about mobilizing change. Even for Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s political and economic leader, there is a limit on the extent to which institutions can advance the protection of human rights.

While inter-governmental organizations provide institutional mechanisms whereby Central Asian states pursue their self-interests and increase their involvement in the global political economy, the expansion of these organizations do not guarantee human rights. Given their geographic distance from the EU and the influence of Russia and China in regional institutions, a different framework is required for promoting human rights in the Central Asian states.

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