By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
Kazakhstani Ambassador to Mexico Andrian Yelemessov has no great love for Human Right Watch (HRW), the New York-based NGO that has been defending refugees, migrants and political prisoners since 1978.
“For me, that organization is bad,” Yelemessov told Pulse News Mexico during a press conference at his embassy on Wednesday, Feb. 20, to tout his government’s economic and political accomplishments over the last 24 months.
He’s right; for him and his government, HRW is bad news.
HRW has issued numerous scathing reviews on the Central Asian nation’s human rights record, including its latest one, released in January of this year.
In that report, the nonprofit advocacy group stated that despite claims by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev that his government is working to improve its dubious record of human rights abuses, it has continued to crack down on independent trade unions, political dissidents, religious groups and media.
According to HRW, which has labeled the country’s human rights registry as “dismal,” there was “no meaningful improvement to Kazakhstan’s poor human rights in 2018.”
The report goes on to state that in 2018, Kazakh authorities prohibited peaceful protests, banned opposition movements, suppressed free speech and harassed and prosecuted independent journalists.
Citing the case of Maks Bokaev, who is serving a five-year sentence for peacefully protesting land code amendments and Ardak Ashim, who last March was placed in court-ordered psychiatric detention for her social media posts, the report said that Kazakh “authorities continued to misuse the vague and overbroad criminal charge of ‘inciting discord’ against outspoken critics.”
In total, the report said that in the first six months of 2018, at least 57 people were charged with the ambiguous crime of “inciting discord.”
Regarding media freedom, HRW said that between January and July of last year, there were 18 recorded cases of detentions, arrests, convictions and limits of journalists’ freedoms.
And as for freedom of assembly, Human Rights Watch said that Kazakh authorities “routinely deny permits for peaceful protests against government policies” and last year detained dozens of people protesting against the use of torture and politically motivated imprisonment.
Religious freedom is another key issue discussed in the report, which stated that “in September, parliament adopted government-proposed amendments to the religion law, which would increase restrictions and sanctions on religious teaching, proselytizing and publications.”
In the first half of 2018, the report said, authorities brought 79 administrative cases against individuals or religious communities and sentenced three people to three-year prison terms for “organizing activities of a banned religious organization.”
The HRW report also called the Kazakh government out on its limiting of labor rights, sexual orientation and gender discrimination, and mistreatment of refugees and children with disabilities.
Asked about the report and other allegations of human rights abuses within his country, Yelemessov said that the accusations were unfounded and that HRW was a “paid-off” organization that lacks credibility.
(It is worth noting that in 1997, Human Rights Watch shared in the Nobel Peace Prize as a founding member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and, in 2008 played a leading role in the international Convention on Cluster Munitions in Dublin, which banned the use, transfer and stockpiling of cluster bombs.
And, to be fair, it is also worth noting that the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor, which analyzes and reports on the output of the international NGO community from a pro-Israel perspective, has accused HRW of having inherent biases and close links to Western governments, adding that “its publications reflect the absence of professional standards, research methodologies, and military and legal expertise, as well as a deep-seated ideological bias against Israel.” )
When asked specifically about some of the aforementioned cases, Yelemessov said that he did not understand the question since Spanish was not his native language, despite the fact that he had just presented an hour-long discourse on his country’s recent accomplishments in flawless Spanish.
He did, however, point out that in Kazakhstan, there are “17 officially permitted religions” and 130 ethnic groups that “live in harmony” under Nazarbayev’s rule.
The ambassador said that the persons who had been prosecuted for their beliefs did not belong to any of the 17 official sects and were members of organizations that were terrorist in nature, not religious.
Yelemessov was far more interested in talking about Kazakhstan’s recent economic and political successes, which are, in fact, quite impressive.
The former Soviet republic indeed boasts more than a quarter century of economic growth and development and has recently assumed a prominent role in the international arena.
Yelemessov proudly pointed out that last year, Kazakhstan’s GDP grew by a solid 4 percent and nearly 70 percent of that growth was in the manufacturing sector.
Inflation is at a manageable 5.3 percent and unemployment is under 5 percent.
And according to Kazakh government figures, investment grew by 17.2 percent in 2018.
But perhaps Kazakhstan’s most impressive achievement has been in the area of global diplomacy.
Not only has the country provided more than $450 million in aid to developing countries around the world in the last quarter century, but it also served as a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council in 2017 and 2018.
During that period, Kazakhstan – which is the world’s largest producer of uranium and which was once home to at least 1,400 nuclear warheads (in its first decade of its independence, the country, with financing from the U.S. government, took the daring and unprecedented step of dismantling and destroying all its nuclear-tipped missiles, repatriating its remaining radioactive military materials back to Russia in the mid-1990s) – took a leadership role in encouraging the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
It also spearheaded efforts to broker peace in Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea, and was a major actor in the fight against global terrorism.
Yelemessov said that terrorism and violence solve nothing, adding that “the only path to peace is through dialogue.”
Turning to the issue of Kazakhstan’s relations with Mexico, the ambassador said that combined two-way trade was stagnated at a low $70 million a year, consisting almost entirely of exports from Kazakhstan to Mexico.
He also said that there are no joint-venture investment projects, despite efforts on the part of his embassy to encourage economic cooperation.
Part of the reason for the lack of investment projects is due to the geographic distance separating the two countries, he said, and the absence of direct flights linking Mexico City to Astana.
Also, he said, while Kazakhstan offers Mexicans visa-free entry into its territory, the Mexican government has not provided reciprocal access to Kazakhs.
Yelemessov said that, notwithstanding efforts by his embassy to sign a bilateral accord with Mexico to eliminate double taxation and provide assurances for Kazakh investors, no such pacts currently exist and the Mexican government has drug it feet on moving forward on negotiations of these proposed agreements.
Asked if he felt that the new administration of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) would take a more proactive stance in providing a solid legal framework for bilateral economic and commercial cooperation, Yelemessov said that it was “too early to tell” but that he was “hopeful” it would.
Yelemessov said that in the three years he had been in Mexico, he has worked hard to broaden bilateral relations in all fields, but has seen “little progress.”
He later said that in January a Kazakh team of specialists in securing oil ducts against illicit taps met with Mexican officials to offer their expertise in help to stem fuel theft (one of President López Obrador’s key projects), but received no response from AMLO’s government.
“I am not used to working so hard without seeing results,” he said, adding that the potential for mutual benefits is ample and that he has a great love and admiration for Mexico.
“We are very interested in broadening our cooperation with Mexico, but if that is to be accomplished, everyone must do their part.”