Crossroads Asia

Kerry Off to Central Asia Amid Pressure to Bring Up Human Rights

A quick look at what to read as Kerry travels the region and a few other recommended reads.

Kerry Off to Central Asia Amid Pressure to Bring Up Human Rights
Credit: U.S. State Department

Links for the weekend:

Central Asia will be drawing international attention over the weekend and into next week on account of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s planned circuit of the region. Human rights organizations–such as Human Rights Watch and Freedom House–have pressed for Kerry to feature human rights on his trip. Robert Herman, vice president for international programs at Freedom House said in a statement, “Secretary Kerry’s visit to Central Asia is a vital opportunity for him to publicly tell the citizens of these countries that political pluralism matters.” Human Rights Watch went into specifics for each country of the region, noting imprisoned activists, harsh laws and ongoing crackdowns on both journalists and the religious. The International Partnership for Human Rights also details specific areas they hope Kerry will address.

As Kerry travels the region, Central Asia and its security situation is likely to lead headlines. We’ve seen some of this already: a piece in the Wall Street Journal regurgitated previous narratives about the draw of the war in Syria on Central Asians and the return threat fighters may pose to their home countries. It doesn’t source many of its claims, such as the statement that 500 Kyrgyzs citizens have flocked to Syria, and largely quotes government and former government officials. As I’ve noted previously, putting numbers to the Central Asians fighting in Syria is difficult. Further, regional government officials have sufficient motivation to exaggerate–it’s been an avenue to additional aid and military support and international glossing over of their human rights records.

Another theme that can be expected in coverage of the trip is a focus on the Russia-U.S.dynamic, and probably the U.S.-China dynamic as well, in the region. Reuters cites a U.S. government official, briefing reporters ahead of the trip, as commenting that Russia has been exaggerating Central Asia’s insecurity. “The anxiety levels in the region are probably higher than the actual level of activity would warrant,” he said. The Reuters article also quoted an “analyst based in Kyrgyzstan” named Temir Sariyev as saying “Kerry will attempt to isolate Moscow.” Temir Sariyev is the name of Kyrgyzstan’s most recent prime minister, who may be renominated for the spot once the newly elected Kyrgyz parliament forms a coalition and a government in the coming days.

A few other good reads: This New York Times piece on ancient earthworks on the Kazakh steppe is fascinating, and gets me wondering what else is unexplored about the region’s distant history. Vice posted an additional scene from their documentary about former Guantanamo detainees exiled to Kazakhstan that is worth watching. The OSCE spoke out this week about the shuttering of an independent magazine in Kazakhstan and Freedom House launched its annual Freedom of the Net rankings, in which Central Asia scores poorly.