Kyrgyzstan, a small mountainous country in Central Asia, is sandwiched between China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In the twenty years since independence from the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan has seen three regimes. The first post-Soviet President, Askar Akaev, was an early reformer but, after increasing corruption and authoritarianism, was ousted during the ‘Tulip Revolution’ in March 2005. His successor, Kurmanbek Bakiev, promised to rewrite the Constitution and undo the excesses of the Akaev era, but ultimately consolidated power and resources. Bakiev was overthrown in April 2010 (see pictures), setting in motion the first effort to create a parliamentary democracy in Central Asia.
Researching the contributions of the Kyrgyz human rights community
In summer 2011 I was lucky enough to receive a Kathryn Davis fellowship to study Russian at Middlebury College and also to receive a Harriman Institute fellowship to conduct research in Kyrgyzstan in the late summer and early fall for my Master’s thesis. My research interest was to further understand the contributions of the Kyrgyz human rights community during the constitutional reform efforts of both 2005 and 2010.
In both 2005 and 2010 the human rights community was involved in rewriting the Constitutions to include better rights provisions and state commitments. In 2005, they regulated pretrial detention and abolished the death penalty. In 2010 they improved the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of information, and added a new right on access to the international system, among other successes.
An essential motivation behind my research was to look beyond the improvements in constitutional rights provisions on paper to ask, has the new Constitution shifted the country’s identity toward a greater respect for human rights norms?
Increased rights commitments are positive, but applying the Constitution is key
The lead up to the constitutional referendum was not very encouraging. The June 27, 2010 referendum took place barely two weeks after inter-ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan left over 400 people dead. Some government officials and NGO activists urged that the referendum be postponed, but the interim government had tied its legitimacy to the vote and rejected any delay.
Against the inauspicious lead up to the June 27 referendum, there have been signs that the international human rights norms incorporated into the new Constitution have found a tentative foothold in Kyrgyzstan.
One encouraging sign is the recent decision by the government to establish a national mechanism for implementation of international human rights decisions. Another example is Kyrgyzstan’s recent treaty accessions (see second optional protocol to the ICCPR and Disabilities Convention).
One prominent human rights lawyer I spoke to during my research said that even though improvements to the Constitution were positive, what was needed was to apply it directly in the courts. It becomes increasingly important that people make use of it and follow through when confronted with State resistance. A medical doctor and activist who was a constitutional council member in 2005 echoed this view. She also noted that being able to cite the Constitution for authority instead of referring to an international treaty almost always strengthened her advocacy work on mental health system reform and political corruption.
Backsliding is easy, maintaining pressure is vital
As activists decide to test the limits of the Constitution, they often meet resistance. For example, one of the key successes in 2010 was an improvement in the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and the removal of penalties for not notifying authorities ahead of a protest. The constitutional change is dampened by the current draft law that restricts the right and retains onerous notification requirements on organizers.
Just as rights groups remain focused on pressuring the government to revise the draft law to be more in line with the spirit of the new Constitution, they are hopeful that ongoing monitoring, documentation, and advocacy on a host of issues will help lead to greater human rights protection and government accountability.
Though Kyrgyzstan’s political trajectory is still unclear, my thesis research has provided an initial window into the efforts by rights groups to try and match government rhetoric to state commitments. With every small success, they help create the conditions for a rights respecting regime.
By Matthew Kennis. Matthew currently works as the Guatemala Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA. He recently received an MA in Human Rights Studies from Columbia University. He was a Kathryn Davis Fellow (Middlebury College Davis School of Russian) and also received a PepsiCo Summer Research Fellowship from the Harriman Institute at Columbia University for field research in Kyrgyzstan.