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Regional Crisis as an Opportunity to Promote Human Rights

It was U.S. President John F. Kennedy who drew inspiration from the Chinese word for crisis. He famously observed that “in Chinese, the word crisis is composed of two characters – one represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.”

There is little doubt that our region is in crisis. At home, Kazakhstan is still reeling from the tragic events of January, while not far from home, the Russian-Ukraine conflict is raging between our two neighbours – to which we pray for a peaceful resolution.

At times of such crisis, Kazakhstan’s people and economy have shown themselves to be remarkably resilient. Such strength and fortitude in the face of unprecedented crisis offer a unique opportunity to focus – as Kennedy noted – on the opportunity within. It is against this background, that Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kazakhstan’s president, has embarked upon a far-reaching set of reforms aimed at bringing the country in line with international standards on a range of issues – and especially in the field of human rights.

Following his now-famous “New Kazakhstan: the path of renewal and modernization” speech on March 16th, Tokayev formally signed an amendment to Decree 597, dramatically upgrading the country’s human rights provisions. As the chairman of Kazakhstan’s Commission on Human Rights – I welcome this move.

First, the key to improving the human rights standards in our country is ensuring that Kazakhstanis know their rights. And so, we have embarked on a public and international awareness campaign, to promote understanding of the changes we are seeing on the ground. Decree 597 made progress on the issues of the liberalization of religious legislation, easing barriers of entry for registering religious associations, and holding religious events – meaning that such organizers need to only inform authorities of any events, rather than request permission.

Moreover, the move pushed ahead with the abolition of the death penalty, and greatly strengthened policies empowering women, as well as giving greater equality and access provisions for people with disabilities. The new amendments also include improvements in the law enforcement and judicial systems. Simultaneously, they are focused on opening up political participation – for instance, lowering the threshold for new political parties from 20,000 to 5,000 members.

Considering the unrest in January, and the ongoing investigation into accusations of abuses by security forces, the government has approved the criteria for assessing the presence of ill-treatment and has launched a pilot program for documenting instances of physical and psychological abuses.

These provisions are deeply encouraging, being a vital part of Tokayev’s sweeping reforms and social improvements. Importantly, however, the task is not complete. Decree 597 does not rest on its laurels. Instead, it demands the government develop and approve a plan for further measures in the field of human rights and the rule of law. We note the importance of eliminating any discrimination against women; the right to freedom of association; equal human rights for persons with disabilities, migrants, and refugees; ensuring the rights of victims of human trafficking; improving mechanisms of interaction with UN bodies; as well as deeper reforms in the field of criminal justice and prevention of torture and ill-treatment.

President Tokayev has made it clear that the protection of human rights is a top priority going forward. The signing of Decree 597 once again emphasizes that the policy of our Head of State is aimed at the purposeful implementation of protecting human rights and freedoms of all Kazakhstanis in accordance with the OECD leading countries’ standards.

In my role as chair of the Human Rights Commission, I am committed to achieving these important goals – and ensuring the country not only meets international standards but seeks to become a human rights leader in Central Asia and globally. We all look forward to Kazakhstan’s accession to the International Labor Organization on the Elimination of Violence and Harassment, building on the growing cooperation with the Council of Europe project “HELP in Central Asia” – that is, Human Rights Education for Legal Professionals in our region.

The Kazakh Commission on Human Rights wholeheartedly welcomes these steps and intends to continue to contribute to these historic changes in Kazakhstan after 30 years of independence. Ensuring that the rights guaranteed by the constitution and laws of the Republic of Kazakhstan, as well as the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture, and other international treaties – remain at the heart of Kazakhstan’s political agenda.