-- And is Peppered with Questions
By Catherine Fitzpatrick.
Turkmenistan put on a very poor performance today in New York at the UN Human Rights Committee, reading long swathes of its own Constitution and Penal Code in mind-numbing detail until finally interrupted by the meeting’s chair -- whereupon the Turkmen delegates were peppered with hundreds of questions from UN experts about its appalling human rights record. (The first day’s brief summary record is here).
The Human Rights Committee -- not to be confused with the political body called the Human Rights Council -- was meeting in New York for this session (it alternates with Geneva), and it was Turkmenistan’s turn to report.
For my money, the treaty bodies, which get little attention from the press, public or even NGOs, are really the best part of the UN system. It is the only place where countries are really called to account for their human rights performance under international law in an adversarial process where they are asked to give account of themselves. The treaties are binding, although there is really only rhetoric and persuasion to use as enforcement. Even so, the process provides a great way for NGOs to get their issues heard, to get the international community to put pressure on a regime that is scornful of their obligations, and to keep following up ever afterwards through the regularly-scheduled process.
More than 100 observers were in the room, more than often attend such sessions, possibly because it was the very first time that Turkmenistan was appearing before this body, and it also was a very rare occasion to hear Turkmenistan talk -- a smattering of European and Asian delegates turned out just to see what they would say, and an army of UN functionaries whose job it is to keep track of countries also didn’t miss the occasion to actually hear from this generally silent member state.
The delegation appeared to have only two people -- First Deputy Foreign Minister of Turkmenistan Vepa Hadjiyev and Yazdursun Gurbannazarova, head of the Presidential Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, a GONGO run by the president which gave up any pretense of independent or even quasi-civic status by the sheer fact that it was the body reporting to the HRC. (When asked about the Paris Principles, the UN guidelines for the independence of human rights bodies, Gurbannazarov said this was outside her mandate to reply.)
Also with the delegates from Ashgabat was Amb. Aksaltan Atayeva who is the longest-serving representative at the UN (since 1995).
Over the years, I’ve seen her at various meetings but I’ve never heard her talk. For that matter, I’ve never heard the Third Committee representative speak, or any Turkmen official. I don’t know whether they pre-emptively suffer from the national-oath sanction but they just never speak up.
Using the well-worn authoritarian official’s trick to soak up time, poor Gurbannazarova read out the Turkmen Constitution and laws endlessly, and seemed about to start reading out the Ashgabat telephone book when she developed a choking fit and kept gulping glasses of water as her colleague tried to find her place on sheets of paper in front of her. It got so bad it almost felt like the Hollywood spit takes on Youtube where actors evince the preposterousness of something someone has said.
"I want to live in that happy country," I thought to myself as Gurbannazarova rambled on -- everything is perfect in Turkmenistan. Eerily perfect.
There are also many conferences and seminars and exercises in improving legislation! With international experts! For example, the International Committee of the Red Cross has held a number of meetings with Turkmenistan to discuss international humanitarian law.
Has the ICRC ever been let into see the Turkmen prisons? Mrs. G. didn’t say... but from what we know, they haven’t been.
Finally the chair stopped her recitation with a request to wrap it up so that the meeting could take more the form of a "dialogue," which is UN-speak for "the hard questions."
Usually, the members -- experts from various countries who are nominated and compete for seats -- do a bit of a "good cop, bad cop" routine where they first profusely thank the country for even doing the report in the first place and bothering to show up (some, like Iran, never do). Here, Turkmenistan was in for a bit of a knuckle-rap, however, as its report was due in 1998, and it only turned it in recently. No matter, we could now celebrate 20 years of independence properly.
Try as he may, the "good cop" didn’t have much to work with, because he was also forced to say that the delegation was disappointing -- only two people, although, he said, struggling to turn lemons into lemonade, at least they were high-ranking. Some countries, faced with the daunting task of accounting for their human rights record to the world’s experts, bring huge delegations with prosecutors, judges, and lawyers, along with the foreign ministry representatives, because they have very detailed reports and face a lot of detailed questions.
Turkmenistan also got many questions -- but they were mainly all like this: why have you said nothing in your report about this, that, or the other thing? As one expert pointed out, HRC isn’t just there to hear about laws, which can be read on the Internet, and which amount to good intentions. They need to hear about practices and specific cases.
You could hear the experts struggling to keep out a tone of incredulity from some of their lines of questioning. Was it really true that not a single prisoner had ever complained about torture or inhumane conditions, ever, in Turkmenistan? Was it really true that there wasn’t a single case of domestic violence that had ever been prosecuted in Turkmenistan?
Several Committee members tried to reason out loud how it could be that nothing was available about any human rights violations. Could it be that people were afraid to talk?
One member asked explicitly: what happened to all those people arrested in 2002 and charged with plotting a coup? Where are they? What is their status? How is their well-being? No one has heard from them since. Why haven’t their relatives been notified? What is this prison called Ovadan-Depe that is said to be a secret prison holding such political prisoners?
Another member asked specifically about individual political prisoners such as the journalists who helped the French TV crew. Why were they in jail in the first place, and how was their health?
The structure of the meeting is such that all the Committee members first get through their questions -- and they have lots of them -- going methodically through each article of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and their List of Issues which have been given to the state party in advance.
Then only when they are done does the state delegate reply -- the next day, or possibly...never, to some of the questions (that’s how Turkmenistan has handled the hot seat at treaty bodies in the past).
That’s why some members helpfully took up the theme of the non-answers already given to other treaty bodies -- Turkmenistan has been at the Committee on the Elimination of Racism and Discrimination and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and has also taken a turn at the Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council -- all with very incomplete and evasive responses to the basic questions of why there is no information at all, and why all the NGOs have information about torture, political prisoners, media suppression.
Of course, there is something absurd about all this exercise. Nice ladies and gentlemen from Sweden or Ireland or the Netherlands or South Africa ask all the right things for all the right reasons -- because of Turkmenistan’s well-documented appalling record. NGOs get to have input in a pre-session and in alternative or "shadow" reports which they distribute to the members and which are published online at ohchr.org under the various sessions for specific treaty bodies (Turkmenistan at HRC is here.)
Throughout this ordeal, the Turkmen delegates didn’t look angry or chagrined, but just looked dead-pan and dispassionate, taking down notes now and then dutifully -- probably some official higher than them will decide how to answer the questions from those nice people at the UN -- if at all.
But I must say it’s really refreshing to hear stark, human rights-specific hard questions being asked of this country. Because almost every other encounter with Turkmen officialdom is completely different -- it’s energy-seeking envoys and oil and gas executives flattering the president and his lackeys, with many of them being obsequious and even prostrate in the process. To be sure, quietly, Western diplomats raise the same questions and cases that the treaty body members are now asking out loud. But that’s just it -- they are quiet, due to the geopolitical exigencies as they perceive them.
That is, again, why it is indeed so heartening to hear the facts stated out loud; to hear credence and respect given to the work of Farid Tuhbatullin, who maintains chrono-tm.org and Vyacheslav Mamedov and other Turkmen emigres who submitted information, as well as to the work of Human Rights Watch, Open Society Institute and others who sent their reports and representatives to the meeting.
About half-way through the meeting, one of the young bucks sitting behind the delegation came out into the audience with his camera and began demonstratively taking pictures of a row of us, from the human rights groups and web sites. I tried to think where I’d seen him before, as I think I had -- he was like a young Rashid Nurgaliyev.
So persistent and "in-your-face" was this fellow about his intimidating camera work that I flashed him a peace sign. We know what you’re doing, comrade.
The last time I saw that sort of intimidating Soviet KGB-type tactic was when Azerbaijan came to CEDAW some years ago and even had their video cameras rolling to film the NGOs who came to provide alternative information. It’s disconcerting, but nowadays, Little Brother is watching back -- Farid and company were there with their cell phones filming the Turkmen watchers filming us...