Human Rights in Kazakhstan and the International Olympic Committee

Photo of Olympic rings by Flickr user mastahanky - licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Photo of Olympic rings by Flickr user mastahanky – licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Almaty, Kazakhstan is one of two remaining candidate cities to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. Human rights activists are using its prominence as a finalist to criticize what they consider Kazakhstan’s abysmal human rights record and the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) apparent apathy to such concerns. Activists are pushing for increased scrutiny regarding the Olympic bids of authoritarian nations, and are publicly pressuring the IOC to add effective language to the newly mandated human rights contracts, which countries sign to host the games. In particular, Human Rights Watch (HRW) is pressuring the IOC to enforce the contracts and follow through on strict sanctions for breach of contract. They also hope that the bid will foster a much-needed discussion of Kazakhstan’s human rights issues. Human rights defenders are not hopeful that the host nation will live up to its obligations, however, because Beijing, China is the only other remaining candidate city, and protesters languished in prison long after the 2008 summer games they hosted ended.

According to HRW, Kazakhstan’s human rights situation has gone “from bad to worse.” New laws allow police to quickly break up protests of even a few people, and the nation’s recent United Nations Universal Periodic Review criticized policies limiting the freedom of expression and assembly. As a current member of the United Nations Human Rights Council and signatory to applicable treaties, Kazakhstan may be contravening its obligations. For instance, Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights protects the right of people to peacefully assemble. Since these obligations do not appear to have meaningfully affected Kazakh policies, human rights defenders are concerned that the current language of the IOC contracts will be equally ineffective.

As a result, activists are pressuring the IOC to take action, which has historically been an effective tactic. Responding to public outcry, the IOC investigated unpaid wages to workers in the run up to the Sochi games. It has responded to the recent controversy over human rights abuses by adding a clause to the contract that all host countries must sign, to “take all necessary measures to ensure that development projects necessary for the organization of the Games comply with local, regional, and national legislation, and international agreements and protocols, applicable in the host country with regard to planning, construction, protection of the environment, health, safety, and labour laws.” In response over the outcry of the Sochi games, the IOC has added non-discrimination language that will not take affect until after the 2022 games. The Olympic Charter states that the games are designed in part to advance the “harmonious development” of humanity and the “preservation of human dignity.”  The language has no binding effect on host nations, however, and many nations would promise to follow the Charter with no real intention to live up to their word.

With the near certainty that the 2022 Olympic games will take place in an authoritarian nation with major human rights issues, activist are likely to continue their push for greater transparency. Past successes in pressuring the sporting bodies appear to be a powerful way for activists to pressure nations to live up to their obligations.

Central Asian States Disregard LGBT Rights


Image courtesy Guillaume Paumier

Throughout Central Asia, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people must hide their sexual orientation for fear of violence, extortion by the authorities, and even arrest. The lack of protections for this population creates a human rights issue. In the Soviet era, homosexuality was criminalized and could lead to several years in prison. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the situation for LGBT people in Central Asia remains precarious, with homosexuality still criminalized in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and discrimination and marginalization throughout the region. The Central Asian countries can come into line with international law, enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and emerging norms by decriminalizing homosexuality and combatting social norms stigmatizing people based on their sexual orientation.


Article 9 of the ICCPR defends against arbitrary arrest and protects everyone’s rights to liberty and security of person while Article 17 protects people from unlawful interference with privacy. Article 26 of the ICCPR and Article 2 of the ICESCR both guarantee protection against discrimination on any grounds. In 2012, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) explained that although the non-discrimination guarantees listed in the ICCPR and the ICESCR do not explicitly include “sexual orientation,” they all include the words “other status.” The OHCHR explained that the inclusion of the words “other status” affirms that the lists of discriminations were intentionally left open to include future grounds for discrimination, such as sexual orientation, which were not considered when the documents were written.


In 2009, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) confirmed that the non-discrimination guarantee of the ICESCR includes sexual orientation. The CESCR explained that states should ensure that a person’s sexual orientation is not a barrier to realizing ICESCR rights. In June 2011, the Human Rights Council adopted the first UN resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity, expressing “grave concern” at violence and discrimination against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, leading to the first UN report on this issue.


Discrimination against LGBT people is the prevailing standard throughout the Central Asian states. Article 120 of Uzbekistan’s criminal code outlaws sexual intercourse between two men, as does Article 135 of Turkmenistan’s criminal code. Since 1998, homosexuality is no longer outlawed in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Despite this legal change, the lack of specific protections for LGBT people and an environment where LGBT individuals cannot approach authorities for fear of blackmail or violence has led to societal discrimination, which functions as if it is institutionalized by law. In Kyrgyzstan, lesbian and bisexual women are often subjected to forced marriages and rape in an effort to “cure” them. Homophobia is widespread in Tajikistan, where many view homosexuality as a sin or a disease and the general population is intolerant of homosexuality because of traditional attitudes and Islam’s strong influence on the population. This discrimination implicates the rights to privacy and expression because LGBT people are forced to hide their identities for fear of government and societal reprisal.

According to the organization Civil Rights Defenders, “[T]here are no legal safeguards against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in any of the Central Asian countries.” The organization also claims that human rights organizations in the region have been unwilling to defend LGBT rights and that if LGBT issues are addressed, it is usually in a manner that creates further stigmatization, such as in conjunction with HIV-prevention initiatives. These initiatives, in and of themselves often carry their own cultural stigma, further marginalizing LGBT issues. In 2009, an Uzbek HIV-rights activist was sentenced to seven years in prison for seducing minors; the court used the activist’s safe sex campaign as evidence that his activities contradicted the national traditions and culture of Uzbekistan. In Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, however, there are initiatives and organizations working openly for LGBT rights and HIV prevention. As a marginalized population, LGBT people in Central Asia need government protections to ensure that they enjoy the rights offered to all persons under international law.


By arbitrarily arresting, blackmailing, criminalizing, physically and verbally abusing, and engaging in general discrimination against LGBT people, the Central Asian countries are not upholding the ICCPR and the ICESCR. These documents are both binding on the Central Asian countries because Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are all States Parties. The only way for the Central Asian states to come into line with the ICCPR and the ICESCR is to decriminalize homosexuality and to establish laws protecting their LGBT communities from discrimination. Even where homosexuality is decriminalized, societal discrimination and marginalization deprive LGBT people of their basic rights, which are guaranteed by the ICCPR and ICESCR.

Central Asia: Balancing National Security with the Freedom of Religion

Sher-Dor Madrasa in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Since September 11, 2001 all five Central Asian countries have enacted legislation restricting religious freedoms in an attempt to curb the rise of radical Islamic terrorism. The new laws have had a damaging effect on the free practice of religion. In 2004, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jahangir, stated that freedom of religion “is a fundamental right that is not susceptible to derogation, even in time of emergency. “Despite a legitimate interest in promoting national security, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan also maintain a set of obligations to protect this basic right as States Parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).


The threat of terrorism in Central Asia is well-founded. In 1999 and 2004 a series of bombings killed dozens in the Uzbek capital Tashkent. Immediately after the September 11 attacks in the United States, Tajikistan initiated a ban on certain groups, including Hizbut-Tahir, al-Qaeda, Bay-at, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and Harakati Tablighot. In 2006, Kyrgyzstan labeled extremist group Hizbut-Tahrir as the largest religious challenge in the country. Kazakhstan has eliminated 42 extremist groups and prevented 35 terrorist attacks since 2010 alone. However, many of the new Religion Laws have broad applications that affect religious activities with no relation to terrorism.


Kyrgyzstan’s Administrative Code and Turkmenistan’s Religious Organization Law require any religious organization operating within the state to register with the government. Kyrgyzstan also bans prayers and religious rituals not approved by the state. Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have made creating, promoting, and distributing religious materials an offense subject to criminal penalties or high fines. The Administrative Code of Kyrgyzstan and the Criminal Code of Tajikistan make it an offense to participate in a religious organization that contradicts the aims of the state. And Tajikistan’s new Religion Law requires children to receive all religious education from state-licensed institutions. As previously reported in the Human Rights Brief, the Tajik government also enacted a Parental Responsibility Law that requires parents to prevent children from participating in religious activities that are not sanctioned by the state.


The effects of these laws have been present throughout Central Asia. According to a Human Rights Watch report, hundreds of religious organizations were forced to close in 2012 after failing to receive official registration from the Kazakh government. In the Kostanai Region of Kazakhstan, which has a population of 900,300, only two bookshops are allowed to sell religious materials. The report also indicated that during the same timeframe, over 200 people in Uzbekistan were arrested or convicted for religious extremism. At the beginning of the year, 1,823 Tajiks began their studies in foreign religious institutions; 1,621 were required to return to Tajikistan. The government of Kyrgyzstan is currently holding 83 religious extremists in detention facilities, amid fears that prisons have become breeding grounds for terror recruitment.


Because every country in Central Asia is a party to the ICCPR, each has an obligation to promote the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion as outlined in Article 18. The rights include the “freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.” The Central Asian countries claim they have not impinged upon these rights because Article 18 also allows for “such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” The General Assembly has affirmed that the Central Asian countries have read this exception for national security too broadly. In Resolution 66/168, the General Assembly expressed concern with the growing number of restrictive laws and intolerance motivated by Islamophobia. The Special Rapporteur on the freedom of religion or belief then affirmed that “states should avoid equating certain religions with terrorism as this may have adverse consequences on the right to freedom of religion or belief of all members of the concerned religious communities or communities of belief.” Despite the sentiments by the General Assembly and Special Rapporteur, the Central Asian laws restricting the practice of religion have not been amended or repealed.


While the Central Asian countries may believe that the restrictions on religion are justified in the face of rising threats of terrorism, the ICCPR obliges member states to respect religion as a fundamental right. If the application of the Religion Laws continues to create a substantial burden on those not associated with terrorist activities, the United Nations, although it has not articulated further steps, could begin to place more pressure on the Central Asian governments.

Water Scarcity in Central Asia May Lead to Conflict

The Amu Darya or Oxus River seen from Uzbekistan looking towards Turkmenistan.

Water scarcity is a looming problem throughout the world, particularly affecting developing nations such as the Central Asian states. Approximately 884 million people do not have access to safe drinking water and the number of people affected by severe water stress could increase to over 3.9 billion by 2030. In Central Asia, obtaining an equitable division of the region’s major rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, is a disputed issue that may lead to armed conflict. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the countries that control the rivers, both have plans to build hydroelectric dams, which will give them substantial influence over water resources in the region, to the potential detriment of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. With increasing water scarcity in Central Asia and the vacuum left by a lack of binding international law, the dam plans will make achieving the seventh UN Millennium Development Goal, ensuring widespread access to clean water, and realizing the objective of UN Resolution 64/292 on the right to water, increasingly difficult and may send the region into armed conflict. The effects of such a conflict could be devastating, leading to the contravention of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the  Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Historically, the Central Asian states developed a standard for water and electricity exchange due to stringent Soviet resource-allocation policies. This arrangement controlled the potential effects that uneven water distribution would have on human security in the region. In 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the newly independent Central Asian states signed the Almaty Agreement, maintaining the Soviet allocation of water, which favored Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Under the agreement, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan do not have enough water for their planned development activities and are desperately in need of the dam projects.

Because the right to water is not a self-standing right in international human rights law, dam projects by Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan would not necessarily be in direct contravention to binding international obligations. The proposed dam projects will provide Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan with a steady stream of urgently needed power. Despite this, Uzbek leadership, with Kazakh support, opposes the dam projects, arguing that they will disrupt water supplies in the two countries, negatively affecting their economies by reducing the amount of water they have for agriculture to export, and damaging the environment. If Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan move forward with their dam projects, achieving the seventh MDG to “halve the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015” will be nearly impossible. It will also challenge the goals set out in UN General Assembly Resolution 64/292, which promises “to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all.” Though Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan both agreed to the MDGs and voted for the General Assembly resolution, neither of these declarations is legally binding.

Despite the lack of binding international guarantees for the right to water, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan may reconsider moving forward with their dam projects because of the threat of war.  Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, stated that the dam projects could lead to war because of water’s importance to Uzbekistan’s agricultural exports, which make up a large percentage of the country’s foreign earnings. Water conflicts, or “water wars,” occur when a country controls the water resources of another, water-scarce, country and uses water as leverage over the country that does not control its own access to water. Human rights laws guaranteeing the right to water are not strong enough to adequately deter countries that may consider engaging in water wars. However, the humanitarian effects of water wars may trigger international legal obligations. Women and children in Central Asia are particularly in danger from water scarcity issues because much of the agricultural work falls on them. They are often responsible for transporting water to the home; thus, with increased water scarcity they will be spending much more time and energy transporting water. Additionally there is clear gender inequality regarding access to water, with rural women facing critical problems in this area. Despite the lack of binding international law on the right to water, by instating policies that will exacerbate water scarcity and lead to war, the Central Asian states are ignoring Article 14 of CEDAW and Article 24 of the CRC, which specifically protect the rights of women and children and their access to water resources.

The countries of Central Asia are victims of a post-Soviet lack of a coordinated management system, but these actions could likely hamper the goals set out in human rights declarations. Without stronger human rights laws governing access to water, the region is highly susceptible to water wars, certain countries and minorities are disproportionately affected, and water scarcity will get exponentially worse due to climate change and mismanagement of resources.

Made in Kazakhstan: Migrant Child Labor in Kazakhstan’s Tobacco Fields

Child worker in one of Kazakhstan’s tobacco fields. Photo credit: Filip Spagnoli

Despite national and international laws prohibiting children from working in tobacco fields, many migrant youth in Kazakhstan reportedly spend up to thirteen hours per day harvesting Philip Morris Kazakhstan’s (PMK) tobacco leaves during the hottest months of the year. Most of the children have migrated with their families from other Central Asian countries to work in the fields. The intense labor requirements, and exposure to toxic pesticides and dangerous levels of nicotine, jeopardize the safety and health of field workers, especially child laborers, who are more vulnerable than adults to the hazards of tobacco farming. PMK has disregarded its corporate social responsibility by profiting from migrant child labor in Kazakhstan, and the Kazakh government has been complicit in gross violations of international and domestic laws protecting the rights of migrant children by allowing these practices to continue.

Kazakhstan has ratified several international treaties, which prohibit migrant child labor. Article 10 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which Kazakhstan ratified in 2006, prohibits the economic and social exploitation of children. The ICESCR restricts children from working in environments that are harmful to their health or development, such as PMK’s tobacco fields. Work in tobacco fields creates a high risk for a host of adverse health effects. Frequently handling large amounts of tobacco can lead to a condition called “green tobacco sickness,” which is caused by the absorption of large amounts of nicotine into the skin and can cause vomiting and headaches. Children are particularly susceptible to green tobacco sickness because of their small size.

Furthermore, the ICESCR urges states to establish minimum age limits for child workers. Kazakh law itself prohibits those younger than eighteen from working on tobacco farms. Nevertheless, a Human Rights Watch report documented more than seventy cases of migrant child labor in 2009. Moreover, the Kazakhstan Government reported more than 900 incidents of migrant child labor in 2009 and more than 1,200 in 2008. Kazakhstan is also bound under the ICESCR to uphold rights for all, regardless of national origin. The fact that many of the child laborers are migrants from other Central Asian countries should make no difference in how the government addresses this issue.

Additionally, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Kazakhstan is a party, requires member states to protect children, regardless of nationality, from work that interferes with their health. Article 32 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child further calls on member states to provide a minimum employment age; regulate hours and conditions; and establish penalties and-or sanctions to ensure that employers adhere to the law. As a member of the United Nations International Labor Organization, Kazakhstan is also bound by the Minimum Age Convention and Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention, the latter of which seeks to protect children from forced labor and harmful professions. The Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention also calls for member states to remove children from precarious situations, including those that pose a risk to a youth’s health.

Even though Kazakhstan has not signed or ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, which seeks to protect immigrants from less favorable work conditions and increases the recognition of migrant workers’ rights, the previously mentioned international treaties and domestic laws prohibit Kazakhstan from allowing migrant child labor in tobacco fields. However, Kazakhstan’s refusal to join itself to this Convention in conjunction with the prevalence of migrant child labor abuses sends a mixed message to the international community.

PMK, a wholly owned subsidiary of one of the world’s largest tobacco companies Philip Morris International (PMI), buys all of the tobacco in the Enbekshikazakh district of Almaty province, where nearly all of Kazakshtan’s tobacco is grown. PMI has claimed that in past efforts to eliminate migrant child labor practices, it required Kazakh farmers to sign contracts with assurances of adequate labor conditions. However, in 2009, despite more than twenty reports of migrant child labor to PMK, PMK only terminated a single farm’s contract for repeat offenses. Since the report’s release in 2010, PMI has promised to improve communications with PMK and work with the local government.

Despite its international and national legal commitment to ban migrant child labor, Kazakhstan sustains a culture where children work days, nights, and weekends in tobacco fields. To show the world that it is attuned to the rights of migrant families, the Kazakh Government could ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, in addition to meeting its current international legal obligations. PMK should terminate contracts with farms that repeatedly use child labor and the government should initiate more inspections of fields and impose sanctions for violations. Much more needs to be done by the Kazakh Government and business community to eradicate migrant child labor from Kazakhstan’s tobacco fields.