BISHKEK (TCA) — UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ tour of five Central Asian countries, which ended on June 13, appeared big on handshakes and praise but short on specifics about improving human rights problems in the region, Hugh Williamson, Director of Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch wrote on June 15.
In Kazakhstan, Guterres echoed the government’s own promotional pitch, naming the country a “pillar of stability” in the region, with no reference to the lack of free elections, the ban on street protests, and the jailing of activists and union leaders, Williamson said, adding that Guterres’ praise for Kyrgyzstan as a “pioneer of democracy” hit the wrong note, coming amid a crackdown on independent media and legal charges against outspoken nongovernmental organizations.
Central Asian leaders also pay close attention to what high-level visitors like Guterres focus on, also in public. Not only did Guterres fail to set clear expectations on human rights improvements across Central Asia, his praise for his largely authoritarian audience risks sending the message that trampling over human rights is fine, Williamson said.
He went on saying that it’s clear that the UN secretary-general has complex priorities, and tackling human rights abuses is part of a larger strategy of engagement with difficult member states. UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric recently explained Guterres’ overall strategy, saying the best way to support rights is by “ending conflict and countering the root causes including exclusion and inequality”. But public messaging is vital too, Williamson added.
“Guterres didn’t meet civil society organizations even though, as Secretary-General, he has repeatedly spoken out about their importance. We hope that on future trips he will find time for human rights activists who are exposing the abuses the UN is committed to helping eradicate,” Human Rights Watch’s Williamson concluded.