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UN Secretary-General should feature rights during his visit to Central Asia

United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres' trip to Central Asia, beginning June 8, 2017, is a major opportunity for the UN to mark its concern at the highest level over the worrying state of human rights in the region, Human Rights Watch said yesterday. The secretary-general should push Central Asian leaders for specific improvements, including ending torture and the crackdowns on demonstrations and freedom of expression.

Guterres is scheduled to visit Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan and to meet with the president of each country. He is also to attend international conferences on security, environmental, and counterterrorism issues. Several Central Asian governments are among the most abusive in the world. Torture, politically motivated imprisonment of human rights activists and others, and heavy restrictions on protests and the operation of nongovernmental groups and the media are leading concerns.

«With such a catalogue of rights violations, human rights should be high on the secretary-general’s agenda," said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. «We look forward to him using his first visit to the region to urge the presidents to do what’s called for under international law and UN treaties their governments have signed, release those wrongly behind bars, allow rights groups and reporters to do their work, and end impunity for torture.»

The secretary-general’s visit is an excellent opportunity for him to raise human rights concerns in every capital he visits in the spirit of the UN’s «Human Rights Up Front» initiative, Human Rights Watch said.

In Kyrgyzstan, Guterres is scheduled to join a commemoration in the southern city of Osh for victims of the June 2010 ethnic violence, in which hundreds of people were killed. The authorities have failed to adequately address abuses arising from the violence, which disproportionately affected ethnic Uzbeks. The secretary-general should urge Kyrgyzstan to investigate these abuses and bring those responsible to justice. He should also call for the immediate release of the human rights defender Azimjon Askarov, who was wrongfully imprisoned following the 2010 violence. The UN Human Rights Committee in March 2016 called for Askarov’s immediate release, but he remains behind bars and is in ill-health.

«The secretary-general said recently that 'human rights must never be seen as a luxury or saved for later after peace and development have been achieved,'" Williamson said. «Many people in Central Asia sadly see rights as a luxury beyond their grasp. Guterres can do something about that on his visit to the region.»