Veronika Szente Goldston
The EU has just sent a clear message to Turkmenistan: human rights do not feature in our relationship.
EU foreign ministers on Monday (27 July) waved through an interim trade agreement that gives preferential treatment and promises broader, upgraded relations with Turkmenistan, one of the worst human-rights abusers in the world. They made no reference whatsoever to human rights.
This is a shocking move, and particularly dispiriting to witness under the watch of the Swedish presidency of the EU, whose work programme pledged to “work for greater visibility for EU policy in the area of human rights” and affirmed that “international law, human rights, democracy and rule of law should permeate work under the EU common foreign and security policy, including the dialogues with third countries”.
The move is also shocking considering the significant controversy that has surrounded the EU’s long-standing quest for enhanced relations with Turkmenistan – a gas-rich country that most member states view as an important strategic partner, but whose human-rights record is a complete anathema to the values the European Union stands for.
The agreement itself does contain a so-called human-rights clause, affirming that “respect for democracy and fundamental and human rights ... underpin the internal and external policies of the Parties and constitutes an essential element of this Agreement” and providing for possible suspension should either party violate this principle. But given the appalling state of human rights in Turkmenistan, a rigorous interpretation of these provisions would mean that immediately after concluding the agreement, the EU would be compelled to initiate proceedings to suspend it.
Where voices of concern fell silent
Most EU member states have made no secret of their support for proceeding with the agreement despite this absurd situation, some even arguing that it would place the EU in a better position to affect positive change in the country. The agreement had been held up only thanks to the European Parliament, which sought to give real meaning to the agreement’s human-rights clause by refusing to approve it until the Turkmen government had taken a number of specific steps to address its atrocious human-rights record, steps such as releasing political prisoners, lifting informal travel bans on activists and their relatives and allowing independent human-rights monitors into the country.
But in April, the European Parliament finally gave in to sustained pressure from the European Commission and the Council of Ministers and gave the green light to the agreement, calling it “a potential lever to strengthen the reform process in Turkmenistan”. The Parliament did at least leave no doubt about its deep concern about the state of human rights in Turkmenistan, saying it “deplores” the situation as “still unsatisfactory” and urging concrete human-rights reforms.
EU member states had already squandered precious time and leverage in the lead-up to the Parliament’s vote in April, by focusing all their efforts on getting the Parliament to back down on its reform demands, instead of trying to secure improvements on human-rights issues that would make Turkmenistan a less controversial partner.
A dialogue without noise
There is no evidence of any serious effort on the part of the EU to press for concrete reforms in the wake of the Parliament’s approval either. The EU holds isolated, once-yearly talks known as “structured human-rights dialogues” with each of the Central Asian states, held most recently with Turkmenistan on 30 June. But the content and outcomes of these dialogues remain obscure and, most importantly, appear to have no bearing on the overall relationship the EU has with these governments.
This week’s formal approval of the trade agreement by EU ministers without even the scantest mention of human rights sends a disheartening message that is guaranteed not to go unnoticed in Ashgabat: human rights do not feature in the EU-Turkmenistan relationship. Under the circumstances, the Swedish presidency’s pledges about human rights deserving more visibility and being an integral part of the EU’s foreign policy could not ring more hollow.
But it is not yet too late to reverse this. Energy security and human rights are not mutually exclusive goals. The EU should use the upgraded relationship with Turkmenistan as an opportunity to push for positive change. It should be honest and recognise the existence of serious concerns about the Turkmen government’s rights record; clearly articulate the specific human-rights improvements it expects in exchange for enhanced relations; and proactively engage to help secure them.
Those who have suffered more than two decades of repression in Turkmenistan and who depend on principled international engagement to protect them deserve nothing less.
Veronika Szente Goldston is the Europe and Central Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.