Kazakh independent expert: Human rights NGOs enjoy more influence

Nazgul Yergalieva [Personal archive]

A lot has change over the last years in Kazakhstan in terms of human rights, but more work is outstanding, independent expert Nazgul Yergalieva told EURACTIV in an interview, describing how the authorities in the central Asian country are now cooperating with NGOs in improving human rights protection.

Nazgul Yergalieva was a keynote speaker at a briefing for the diplomatic corps in Kazakhstan, organized by the country’s Supreme Court in early June. The Supreme Court Chairman Zhakup Asanov described her as an independent expert who “boldly criticises the courts” and has successfully defended three alternative reports on Kazakhstan to the UN on human rights and won a number of individual complaints to the UN Committees on Torture against the states of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Nazgul Yeargalieva spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev via VTC.

Your professional background is in human rights, fighting torture, etc. and you have been the author of three “alternative reports” about the human rights situation in Kazakhstan. Can you explain? What are these reports and in what way are they different from the official reports?

I am an independent consultant, working in the areas of human rights since 1999. From 1999 to 2008 I worked for the Open Society Institute for Central Asia, from Budapest. Later I moved to Kazakhstan, first worked for an NGO and then became an independent consultant, working on various projects, mostly on the legal sector, institutional reform, reform of the prosecutor’s office, police reform.

As an independent expert, I was hired by international organisations, including the EU, to provide services, producing alternative reports about Kazakhstan, a work which I could describe as advocacy on human rights, to promote better human rights protection in the country.

In 2005 I was involved in an Open Society project focused on combating torture in the region of Central Asia. At that time all the governments of the region didn’t admit to having instances and practices of torture, and it was not possible to have any meaningful engagement with the governments on this particular topic. Then we realised that the only group that was more or less independent, and that could work on this issue were the lawyers.

This is how under the project, teams of lawyers in each country, namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, were formed and trained on how to develop cases on torture, how to take cases them to UN Human Rights committees, respectively the UN Human Rights Committee and UN Committee Against Torture. And all of these cases were successful.

Regarding the so-called “alternative reports”, I should explain that as a member of the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Kazakhstan needs to produce reports to the world organization every four years. The reports are based on questions asked by the UN to the respective country, and the same questions are answered in parallel by NGOs. The UN comes up with concluding observations based on the two reports – by the government and by the NGOs. The reports by NGOs as a rule are more critical, compared to the official views.

Back in 2014, when I was doing this work, the government wasn’t sufficiently self-critical and that the independent judgement was very useful for the UN body, which in turn issued very useful recommendations to the country.

You mean that things have changed since?

We still have cases of torture in penitentiary institutions,  we still have cases of death in custody and persecutions of political activists for freedom of speech and assembly. But indeed, a lot has changed, and progress was also due to the active work of the national human rights organizations in the country. More specifically this applies to the criminal justice system, an area in which a new code of Criminal Procedure was adopted in 2014, containing elements of safeguards advocated by NGOs. Another example is a next wave of reforms in 2016 aimed at modernising the law enforcement agencies. In this area too, NGOs brought additional safeguards, decreasing the time of detention before charges are pressed.

Another example was in 2018 when I had the chance to work closely with the general prosecutor’s office to develop an action plan to combat torture. This effort produced an historic document, because, for the first time, the Coalition Against Torture worked very closely with the key stakeholder, which is the general prosecutor’s office, to come up with a comprehensive action plan that would touch upon all the aspects of prevention and investigation of torture.

However, at the time, there was no support from the Minister of Interior and most of the recommendations were not implemented in the law. Nevertheless, the document produced is still valid and serves as a policy and advocacy blueprint.

What has changed over the years and are people like you, human rights experts representing the civil society, seen as a friend or a foe by the authorities?

In general, the nature of cooperation of the government agencies with the NGOs, and with the civil society and independent experts has changed for the better and working with the authorities has become more meaningful.

There is an active dialogue of the government agencies with the civil society organisations and human rights NGOs on specific reform initiatives. And that engagement makes the reforms every time better than before. That dialogue and engagement has really improved the quality of the reforms. So I think this is the major development over the years.

Although the issues remain complex, as “the devil is in the details”, the government agencies are trying to hear the arguments of the NGOs and were taking them into consideration when reforming legislation. Technology has also greatly improved cooperation and transparency.

Transparency brings more quality information for advocacy purposes, it brings more opportunities for monitoring the activities of the government. It brings more opportunities, again, for information campaigns. So because of this technological development, human rights organisations are also enjoying more influence.

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