Balancing Military Assistance and Support for Human Rights in AsiaLorne W. Craner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
Testimony before the Subcommittee on Central Asia and the Southern Caucasus, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
June 27, 2002
Remarks As Prepared
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, thank you for your kind and well-timed invitation to testify on the very important question of whether the U.S. Government has the right balance between military assistance and human rights in Central Asia. The Committee’s interest in this question is certainly understandable as the importance of universal human rights has been brought sharply into focus by global terrorism.
September 11 dramatically changed the focus of United States foreign policy. We are now engaged in a global struggle against terror that requires working in close cooperation with an array of governments, some of which have, by our own accounts, poor human rights records and with whom we have not had close relations in the past. However, despite this increased focus on terrorism in our foreign policy, these new relationships remain anchored by the solid bedrock in our foreign policy, namely, a strong emphasis on promoting democracy and human rights.
Some in the human rights community here and abroad have expressed concern that as a result of the September 11 attacks on America, the Administration has or will abandon human rights. This is not the case. Indeed, human rights and democracy are as essential today, if not more, than they were before the terrorist attacks on America. We cannot win a war on terrorism by diminishing the universal observance of human rights. To do so would be merely to set the stage for a resurgence of terrorism in another generation.
President Bush and Secretary Powell have been unhesitating in their support of human rights and democracy throughout the world. In his State of the Union Address, President Bush made the point that the fight against terrorism is part of a larger struggle for democracy:
America will lead by defending liberty and justice because they are right and true and unchanging for all people everywhere. No nation owns these aspirations, and no nation is exempt from them. We have no intention of imposing our culture. But America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women, private property, free speech, equal justice and religious tolerance.
Secretary Powell has been equally adamant in calling on our new partners to respect human rights and democracy. At the release of our annual Human Rights Report he said:
The United States welcomes the help of any country or party that is genuinely prepared to work with us to eradicate terrorism. At the same time, we will not relax our commitment to advancing the cause of human rights and democracy. For a world in which men and women of every continent, culture and creed, of every race, religion and region, can exercise their fundamental freedoms is a world in which terrorism cannot thrive.
But I think it is fair to say that the U.S. commitment to human rights and democracy has become a bipartisan tradition that reflects not only U.S. values, but also 50 years of international acceptance and support for the universality of human rights. That is why I welcome this opportunity to testify before you today, and I look forward to continuing to work with this Committee to promote human rights and democracy in this region.
Specifically with regard to Central Asia, I will focus my remarks on our efforts to encourage and support human rights and democracy in the region. I will be frank about the situation in those countries but will make clear what progress we have made in promoting democracy and respect for human rights. For details on military assistance and bilateral relations, I will defer to my colleagues, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Crouch and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Pascoe.
In the case of the five Central Asian republics, the assistance the governments of these countries have rendered to Operation Enduring Freedom has been invaluable. Promoting democracy and human rights is even more important, for these countries are frontline states in the struggle against terrorism. Their proximity to Afghanistan and their own tragic experiences with indigenous terrorism make them particularly vulnerable to future terrorist activities. There is a firm consensus among all U.S. decision-makers that a broadening of cooperation will only be possible if these same governments undergo political reforms that will allow the emergence of democratic institutions, without which there can be no lasting stability in the region.
Promoting religious freedom in Central Asia has also become one of our most difficult tasks given the sensitivities of the issue in the post-9-11 context of a war against terrorism. Many non-Orthodox Christians and especially Muslims find themselves the object of repressive legislation, or of prison sentences. We continue to make it clear in our discussions with each country and its citizens that even though the U.S. was attacked by Islamic extremists, we are not in a war against Islam. We still believe the best approach is to permit all non-violent, unregistered religious groups to exist without government interference. We believe government repression of its observant Muslim believers, as if they were all violent extremists, will bring about that very state which the government seeks to avoid.
As they celebrate their 10th anniversary of independence, the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union continue to present some of the greatest challenges to U.S. efforts to enhance stability in the region, which can only be achieved through democracy and respect for human rights.
Our approach to these overwhelming challenges has been to enhance engagement with the governments and societies of Central Asia. As Dr. Condoleezza Rice said only a week after the horrific September 11 attacks, "Civil liberties matter to this President very much, and our values matter to us abroad. We are not going to stop talking about the things that matter to us, human rights, [and] religious freedom... We’re going to continue to press those things; we would not be America if we did not."
Even while we ramp up our military cooperation with governments that have troubling human rights records, we also see this as an opportunity to enhance our engagement and impact on issues of democracy and human rights. Our firm message to the governments and their leaders has been that closer relations with the United States brings with it a heightened level of scrutiny and that, therefore, any deepening and broadening of our cooperation will depend on continual progress in respecting human rights and democracy. Our policy of enhanced engagement has taken many forms. However, as my colleagues will testify about their activities, the message from all of us has been consistent -- democratic states that respect the human rights of their citizens are anchors of stability and motors of prosperity. Therefore, the governments of Central Asia must keep moving down the path to greater democratization. At every level, from President Bush on down, we have taken every opportunity to express this message when meeting with senior government officials from Central Asia, whether in the capitals of the region or in Washington, DC.
A good example of our coordinated efforts was the Joint Security Cooperation Consultation in Tashkent in January that resulted in the initialing of the Declaration on the Strategic Partnership and Cooperation Framework Between the Republic of Uzbekistan and the United States. Present at this consultation were not only representatives from the Department of Defense and the State Department’s Bureau of European Affairs, but also representatives from my Bureau as well as the Treasury Department. This comprehensive approach to security was concretely reflected in the final document, in which our countries have agreed to cooperate not only in matters of military security but, equally important, in matters of political and economic reform, because security also comes from a free market-based economy and an open, democratic system. Indeed, in this document the government of Uzbekistan reaffirmed its commitment and intentions to further intensify the democratic transformation of its society in the political and economic areas. And the U.S. government has agreed to provide them assistance in doing so.
We also closely coordinate our HRDF-funded projects with the wide range of ongoing U.S. government-funded democracy programs in Central Asia, particularly in such areas as support for independent media and non-governmental organizations. USAID is implementing a wide array of democracy programs in these and other areas, including civic advocacy, the rule of law, political party development and local government reform. State Department public diplomacy programs are reaching out to the next generation of Central Asian leaders by bringing young, reform-minded people to the United States on academic and professional exchanges. This year, the Department is also providing additional funding to expand the grant-making activities of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in Central Asia.
As a sign of our concern I have traveled to the region twice since 9-11, once in January and again two weeks ago, to meet with government authorities to impress upon them the need to meet their commitments to respect human rights. I have also devoted a significant portion of my Bureau’s Human Rights and Democracy Fund (HRDF) to projects supporting democracy and human rights in Central Asia and plan on increasing our programming there substantially. I would like to speak briefly to some of the overriding problems we see and how we have addressed them since September 11.
In Uzbekistan the human rights record remains very poor. Human rights abuses by law enforcement authorities are widespread, including the use of torture. The judiciary is not able to function independently and due process is not respected -- arbitrary arrests and detentions remain problematic. We continue to raise concerns about the treatment of observant, peaceful Muslim groups.
As a result of these serious issues, we have developed a multi-pronged approach to tackle these human rights problems. In the context of 9/11, we have used our enhanced cooperation to push for greater dialogue with government authorities with whom we had had little prior contact. As a result, I have been able to meet with officials from those government agencies where the worst abuses occur, including the Ministries of Justice and Interior as well as the Procurator General. With our Ambassador, John Herbst, in the lead, we are making progress. Uzbekistan has publicly expressed its commitment to internationally recognized human rights and since September 11 has taken several steps to act on that commitment. Limited but positive steps include permitting International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access to prisoners, including those held in pre-trial detention centers; the punishment with long prison sentences of those law enforcement officials who were found guilty of torturing several prisoners to death; the amnesty releasing nearly 800 political prisoners; and for the first time in the history of independent Uzbekistan, registration of an independent human rights NGO. We understand that the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has received an invitation to visit Uzbekistan. It is our hope that the long-banned opposition party, Birlik, will be able to re-register soon.
While these are important steps, we still have a long way to go in Uzbekistan. We are under no illusion that the human rights abuses have ended. We know there to be about 7,000 political prisoners and will continue to urge the government to release them. While arrests have declined significantly, we know they continue. Just four weeks ago Yuldash Rasulov, a human rights activist whose work for the still unregistered Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU) focuses on government repression of practicing Muslims, was arrested. For this reason, we are substantially expanding our support for human rights groups by providing them with the physical space and resources they so badly need to carry out their important work. With our implementing partner, Freedom House, my Bureau will be establishing resource centers for human rights NGOs to use as meeting rooms, to gain access to the Internet, computers and independent newspapers and other media. We are also providing them further training in how to conduct human rights monitoring and reporting. With another of our implementing partners, ABA/CEELI, my Bureau will soon establish a human rights clinical program at the Tashkent law school. As part of this program we will train students in basic international human rights standards and provide legal consultations to the public on human rights matters and cases. This will be the first university human rights program in the region.
In Kyrgyzstan, where the government’s human rights record is poor, we have seen some major disappointments since September 11 but are cautiously hopeful that after the tragic events of March 17-18 in Aksy district where police fired on unarmed demonstrators, the government of Kyrgyzstan is once again headed in the direction of greater democratization and respect for human rights. On May 22, Kyrgyzstan’s government resigned following the report of a special state commission investigating the deaths of five civilian protestors. The commission ruled that senior government officials were at fault and recommended specific actions be taken to address the situation, including expediting court and legal reforms in the country. We hope that these recommendations will be implemented. While we are pleased that the Kyrgyz authorities have taken some steps to restore public confidence, public protests continue, with the people calling for greater accountability and transparency in their government. We stand ready to assist the Kyrgyz government take even more concrete measures to expand dialogue and address the grievances of civil society.
To aid citizens to act more effectively at the grassroots level, my Bureau is supporting a program to provide citizen groups with resources and training. Our project will establish a nationwide network of regional information centers with corresponding discussion clubs and reading rooms. Each of these establishments will provide access to international and local independent news and information on current events as well as information on international and local laws regarding human rights and democracy. DRL also plans to promote the growth of democratically-oriented political parties in Kyrgyzstan.
Public discontent in Kyrgyzstan arose over the arrest of parliamentarian Azimbek Beknazarov in January on charges stemming from incidents that had occurred 7 years earlier. The U.S. had credible concerns that this arrest may have been linked to his public statements critical of government policy and our Ambassador, John O’Keefe, publicly pushed for his release throughout the spring with final success. One of the issues that exacerbated the situation there was the lack of sufficient access to independent media; during this time the state-run printing press in Bishkek was refusing to print two of the independent newspapers, Moya Stolitsa and Res Publica, and the government had introduced strict controls on the ownership, import and operation of printing presses. Here, too, Ambassador O’Keefe publicly raised the issue of the need to respect freedom of media. I am pleased to report that the decree restricting printing equipment has been repealed.
Even before these events, my Bureau had identified lack of access to free media as a problem hampering democracy in Kyrgyzstan and we decided to address directly the problem of independent media being dependent on state-controlled media infrastructure. DRL is now in the process of establishing an independent printing press in Bishkek that will serve independent newspapers and publishers to help ensure that the people of Kyrgyzstan will always have access to free and independent information.
In Kazakhstan the government’s human rights record remains poor and government actions since September 11 have been very mixed. A positive note is that Presidents Bush and Nazabayev stated in a joint declaration in December their "desire to strengthen democratic institutions and processes, such as independent media, local government, pluralism, and free and fair elections" in Kazakhstan.
Yet we are deeply concerned that recent incidents suggest an effort to intimidate political opposition leaders and the independent media and raise serious questions about the safety of the independent media in Kazakhstan. An encouraging development was the formation in November of a major new nongovernmental political movement, the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK). While the movement was able to hold public meetings, its founding members were subsequently all fired from their government jobs at the direction of the Prime Minister. In March Ak Zhol, a new democratic party affiliated with the DVK, was able to register. However, Kazakhstani authorities have detained two prominent members of Democratic Choice, Mukhtar Ablyazov and Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, on long-standing corruption charges. While we cannot comment on the veracity of the charges against them, these actions taken together suggest an effort to intimidate political opposition leaders.
Of equal concern have been the negative developments in freedom of the media in Kazakhstan. On May 21, several unidentified men apparently robbed the editorial office of the independent Kazakhstani newspaper, Soldat. On May 22, the Almaty office of another independent newspaper, Delovoye Obrozreniye Respublika, was firebombed and destroyed. Broadcast rights have been suspended since March for the independent television state "TAN," and its primary feeder cable has been vandalized three times since it went off the air. Ambassador Larry Napper has made our concerns clear to Kazakhstani authorities and urged them to conduct an independent and transparent investigation into the firebombing incident as well as the other attacks on independent media. Despite this harassment, we see the emergence of nascent, fledgling democratic forces and DRL therefore plans to increase U.S. support for political party development work in Kazakhstan, and are seeking approval for a project to support an extensive training program for independent journalists in all of Central Asia. This program will train and support journalists to increase coverage of human rights issues, allowing them to monitor human rights abuses and expose corruption in the region, providing the information citizens need to judge those in authority.
In Turkmenistan the human rights record of the government remains extremely poor. Government repression of political opposition and civil society remains a particular concern as does abuse by, and impunity of, police and other law enforcement officials. There are severe restrictions on freedom of speech and media. Since September 11 there have been only the most minor improvements. The government announced that exit visas are no longer required; additionally, at year’s end 9,000 prisoners were amnestied and released and another 9,000 received reduced sentences. Although possibly motivated by internal reasons, recently there have been massive internal investigations and prosecution of the KNB and other security ministries for human rights and other abuses.
Also in Turkmenistan, there are the well-known problems that you have been hearing about from your constituents concerning religious freedom. Under their highly restrictive law on religion, only the Russian Orthodox and Sunni Muslim groups feel free to worship. Other groups in past years have had their churches torn down or property confiscated. Some Protestant faithful were harassed, detained, and beaten. On a more positive note, the government released Baptist Shageldy Atakov and several Jehovah’s Witnesses (imprisoned for conscientious objection). There were no reports of torture this year, and the end to exit visas has been a great benefit to the religious community. President Niyazov also went on record to make new commitments on religious rights in his letter to President Bush.
Promotion of democracy and human rights remains an important part of our multifaceted engagement there, and we regularly raise Turkmenistan’s human rights abuses bilaterally. The U.S. government has expanded its exchange program for Turkmen youth and my Bureau is using HRDF to support democracy by providing small grants to human rights and democracy NGOs via our implementing partners. DRL is also in the process of supporting a regional program for Central Asia to provide direct support for human rights and democracy activists, independent journalists, and NGOs affected by government persecution related to their work.
In Tajikistan, the government’s human rights record remains poor; however, five years after a protracted and brutal civil war, it has taken steps to accommodate the political opposition, conclude and implement a peace accord in a power-sharing agreement, and include the opposition in elections that unfortunately remain flawed. There are opportunities for freedom of public expression of dissent and political debate is allowed. We have also witnessed the establishment of many local NGOs. However, we remained concerned about the need for reform of cumbersome election and party registration laws and we will continue to engage with the government on bringing them into accord with international standards.
In Tajikistan, despite some local incidents with respect to Protestant churches, the government of Tajikistan generally respects the rights of observant Muslim believers. In a delicate balancing act, the government has permitted a religiously oriented party, the Islamic Renaissance Party, to field two members to the lower house of the national parliament since 9-11, and there are several deputies from this party in regional and district parliaments around the country.
While independent media in Tajikistan does exist, journalists practice self-censorship as a way of avoiding government harassment. We were disappointed that the media law recently introduced in parliament does not go far enough in protecting freedom of media. Because of DRL’s deep commitment to freedom of the media, my Bureau recently decided to seek approval for a project to support an extensive training program for independent journalists in all of Central Asia. This program will train and support journalists to increase coverage of human rights issues, allowing them to monitor human rights abuses and expose corruption in the region, providing the information citizens need to judge those in authority.
In conclusion allow me to stress once again this Administration’s firm belief that our fight against terrorism is part of a larger fight for democracy. Finding the proper balance between military assistance and support for human rights when engaging with countries only at the threshold of respect for human rights and democracy is not a question of balancing competing interests, but a question of mutually reinforcing goals. In this new world of greater vigilance against wanton terrorist attacks, we are as convinced as ever that democratic freedoms, political and economic stability, and human rights are key to a world free of terrorism. Societies that respect human dignity and the integrity of the person are societies that adhere to the rule of law and provide no opportunity for terrorism to take hold. A stable government that is accountable to its people and respects their rights and that shares power and practices pluralism can deal more effectively with extremist elements in its society. These are the societies we are striving for in Central Asia, with both our policies and our assistance programs. Thank you.
Released on June 27, 2002