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Human rights in Kazakhstan

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The ongoing fight to improve human rights in Kazakhstan, a long time concern for the West and rights groups, is showing real signs of progress. Even some of the harshest critics of the country’s human rights record have acknowledged the “positive” steps being taken. This is a far cry from the not-too-distant past which saw the country’s record on human rights under constant attack, writes Colin Stevens.

Indeed, the European Parliament went so far as to adopt a resolution on February 11th 2021 calling on Kazakhstan to “end its broad violations of human rights”.

Today, though the EU has acknowledged Kazakhstan's improvements regarding laws and policies vis-à-vis civil society.

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Former UK Tory MEP Nirj Deva has said that “meaningful progress” has been made in Kazakhstan” while ex-European council president Donald Tusk has praised Kazakhstan's “ambitious” reforms programme, including improvement of the rule of law and fundamental rights.

Improvements in the sphere of human rights come with the first anniversary of the signing of the landmark EU-Kazakhstan Enhanced cooperation agreement which covers areas such as human rights along with political dialogue and reforms, rule of law, justice, freedom and security, migration, trade, as well as economic and sustainable development.

President Tokayev has pledged to forge ahead with more reforms, including in the field of human rights, and has already overseen a whole raft of changes, including abolishing the death penalty.

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But Willy Fautre, director of Human Rights Without Frontiers, cautions that there is still room for improvement, saying that in the field of human rights: "A lot of progress needs to be quickly achieved. Freedom of religion is one of those areas where some controversial laws should be revised and aligned to international standards. The US is putting in place a constructive policy in this regard with the establishment of the US-Kazakhstan Religious Freedom Working Group.

“Washington is also developing an Enhanced Strategic Partnership Dialogue (ESPD) and has engaged Kazakhstan on a range of issues, such as human rights, labour and religious freedom."

He added: "President Tokayev should not miss this opportunity to restore the image of his country."

Alberto Turkstra, of the European Institute for Asian Studies, says the president has shown the need for structural reforms, including the 44-member National Council on Public Trust (NCPT), comprising representatives from all walks of society, including human advocacy groups, the Commissioner for Children’s Rights, the Commissioner for Human Rights, the ombudsman for the protection of entrepreneurs, political scientists, civil society representatives, journalists and other public figures.

Progress in this area is being made in various areas. For instance, Kazakhstan, the UN, and the EU are working together on a programme to educate Afghan women through which a select number of students can study in Kazakhstan..The initiative is expected to help create new opportunities for the women and their communities back in Afghanistan.

Elsewhere, Kazakhstan last year adopted a new law on peaceful assemblies, continuing its path of “controlled democratisation” with more liberal legislation that analysts said is helping to develop strong multi-party democracy.

Capital punishment in Kazakhstan has been abolished for ordinary crimes though it is still permitted for crimes occurring in special circumstances (such as war crimes or terrorism) while the Kazak Parliament has toughened penalties for those found guilty of sexual and domestic violence. Jail sentences for people traffickers have also been increased to underline Kazakhstan’s determination to rid itself of such crimes.

Growing public worries over the accidents and injuries caused by drunk-driving sparked stronger prison terms and, in another move, children from poor families now receive a guaranteed social package, including free school meals and transportation to and from school.

Back in 2015, Kazakhstan was ranked a lowly 65th in the rule of law index but the country has since climbed six positions up the rankings.

Kazakhstan's president has also delegated some of his powers to the Parliament, an initiative which is expected to create a stronger system of checks and balances and has won plaudits for supporting the co-existence of different cultures with the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan, for instance, supporting nearly 200 centres where children and adults can study 30 different languages.

In an effort to improve its image specifically on human rights, the Commissioner for human rights (Kazakhstan's equivalent of the EU ombudsman) has been established. Along with the National Centre for Human Rights, the commissioner is empowered to investigate human rights issues.

There is also now also a law that guarantees to NGOs free access to public, international and private financing allowing them to actively participate in the social and political development of the country.

Polish MEP Ryszard Czarnecki, who chairs the EU-Kazakhstan Friendship group in the European parliament, has welcomed the fact that Tokayev, is paying “special attention” to reducing these and other inequalities.

The authors of Kazakhstan at a Crossroads, a major analysis of Kazakhstan, pay tribute to the “significant effort” they say has been invested in “building an international reputation as a meeting point for the world’s major religions.”

The flagship project to this end is the Congress of World and Traditional Religions that meets every three years, bringing together senior figures from many of the world’s largest faith communities.

In their conclusions, the authors state: “Kazakhstan wants and expects not to be lumped in with its less successful Central Asian neighbours. With greater power (and prestige) must come greater responsibility, so it is entirely appropriate to hold Kazakhstan to a higher standard.”

Further comment comes from Simon Hewitt, a Junior Researcher at the Brussels based European Institute for Asian Studies, and its CEO Axel Goethals, who told this website, “As a former Soviet state, Kazakhstan is slowly moving towards a more open democratic system.”

But they caution: “This is a process which cannot happen overnight.”

Greens MEP Viola von Cramon partly agrees, saying: “With decreasing Russian influence and a progressively aggressive China, central Asian republics, including Kazakhstan are signalling some openness. It is a positive sign but we should not overestimate its implication.”

Commenting further on the post-Soviet country, Peter Stano, EU spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said that the EU “encourages Kazakhstan to avail of the advice and expertise” of the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission) “and to fully implement the recommendations made previously and any that may be forthcoming”.

Efforts to improve human rights come with the ever evolving progress also in EU-Kazakhstan co-operation.

The Enhanced Partnership and Co-operation Agreement (EPCA), which came into force almost one year ago, has opened the way to both a deepening and expansion of many ties between the EU and Kazakhstan.

Europe is the country’s main economic partner. Over 50% of its foreign trade is with the EU which, in turn, accounts for 48% of Kazak inward investment. There are about 4,000 companies with European participation and 2,000 joint ventures operating in Kazakhstan. Relaxing visa requirements has made travel easier and there has also been collaboration across a whole range of social and political issues.

A Kazakhstan government source said the EPCA has provided a positive framework to strengthen such links with the EU with increased co-operation now foreseen in a number of other areas, including innovation and green technologies, transport, logistics, education, energy and environmental protection.

Kazak foreign affairs minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi said the EU’s advice and guidance had been important and was needed more than ever in the future, adding that he is “confident that we will see even more effective and diverse co-operation to the benefits of our citizens and the wider world”.

Energy

Kazakhstan joins race to produce 'green' hydrogen

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German investors intend to establish the production of “green” hydrogen in Mangystau region. The road map for the implementation of the project was signed at the meeting with the President of SVEVIND Wolfgang Kropp, organized during the visit of the Kazakh delegation headed by the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan Almas Aidarov to Sweden. 

SVEVIND activities are aimed at long-term investment of the company’s own and attracted funds, as part of the further development of low-carbon energy in the Republic of Kazakhstan through large-scale production of “green” hydrogen for further export to the EU countries and other foreign markets.

The investor plans to build wind and solar power plants with a capacity of 30 GW, and use these resources to produce up to 2 million tons of hydrogen per year.

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 “SVEVIND aims to combine the outstanding natural resources in Kazakhstan with SVEVIND’s long-time experience and passion in project development to supply Kazakhstan and Eurasia with green, sustainable energy and products, “powered by nature”. The green hydrogen facilities will lift Kazakhstan among the global leaders of renewable energy and green hydrogen. We are very excited to take the next step in the project development, and we are thankful for the outstanding support of the Kazakh government”, - said Wolfgang Kropp, President of SVEVIND. 

 “Hydrogen energy is one of the most promising fields that may displace all traditional methods of energy extraction in the future. Currently, we have the availability of all the required resources such as wind, solar, water, land and the know-how of SVEVIND. We are looking forward to interesting, large-scale and challenging projects moving forward”, - added the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan Almas Aidarov during the meeting with the Head of SVEVIND.

During the visit, the Kazakh delegation got acquainted with the progress of the company's current project in Sweden and the largest wind farm in Europe “Markbygden 1101”.

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In June this year, SVEVIND signed a Memorandum of Understanding with KAZAKH INVEST. Within the framework of the agreement, the national company and relevant government agencies will provide to the investors full support and comprehensive assistance in the implementation of the project at all stages - from obtaining permits to commissioning. 

SVEVIND is a German company with many years of experience in large-scale renewable energy projects. The company implemented Europe's largest project of an onshore wind generating complex - the Markbygden 1101 cluster of wind farms in Sweden with a capacity of more than 4 GW. The company is represented in the markets of Sweden, Finland and Germany.

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Belgium

Ombudsman for Children’s Rights of Kazakhstan Aruzhan Sain meets with her Belgian colleagues

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In order to study the best Belgian experience in the field of work with children with disabilities, social programs to support children and their families, as well as the organization of integrated and inclusive education, the Ombudsman for Children’s Rights of Kazakhstan Aruzhan Sain met with Belgian representatives in the field of children’s rights. The visit of Sain was organized with the assistance of the Embassy of Kazakhstan in Belgium.

During the meeting with the Chairperson of the National Commission on the Rights of the Child of Belgium Karin Van Laethem, the issues of coordinating the efforts of the authorities at the federal level and at the level of communities and regions of Belgium dealing with child rights issues were discussed. Due to the territorial and administrative structure of the country, independent human rights institutions of the Kingdom operate at the regional level.

In this regard, the Kazakh Ombudsman also visited the Wallonia Regional Agency for Better Life (AVIQ), as well as the Institute for Child and Family Development (IDEF), where the Belgian system of psychological, medical and social support for children with disabilities was presented in detail.

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In turn, A.Sain shared information about the work carried out in Kazakhstan to improve the quality of life of children with disabilities, the purpose of which is to build a system with a guarantee of early detection and early assistance to reduce children with disabilities. According to the Children’s Ombudsman, it is important to provide an individual approach to the treatment of children with functional impairments with the required number of services and technical means of rehabilitation. She told her Belgian colleagues about Kazakhstani reforms in the field of providing children with sports and creative circles at the expense of the state budget.

During a visit to the Royal Institute for People with Musculoskeletal Disabilities (IRAHM) in Brussels, the experience of rehabilitation programs for a child was reviewed, taking into account the characteristics of his physical condition and psychological profile.

Along with this, the Kazakh Ombudsman met with the General Commissioner for the Rights of the Child of the French Community «Wallonia-Brussels Federation» Bernard De Vos, who spoke about the integration policy in the field of inclusive education for children with developmental disabilities and the integration of migrant children. The parties agreed that there are discussions on these issues in all countries and the search for the right path. Discussing the system of prevention and early intervention, the ombudsmen of the two countries noted the importance of screening newborns and monitoring the development of young children.

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In addition, during her visit, the Children’s ombudsman A.Sain held a separate meeting with the Social Protection Adviser of the international company « Socieux + » Marzena Breza, with whom the possibilities of cooperation on the introduction of the institution of foster (professional) families were discussed.

The parties have agreed to exchange relevant information and maintain contacts in matters of protection of children's rights.

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Belgium

Inter-parliamentary dialogue between Kazakhstan and Belgium is expanding

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Ambassador of Kazakhstan to Belgium Margulan Baimukhan met with the Chairman of the House of Representatives of the Parliament of Belgium Eliane Tillieux, during which the parties discussed the current state and prospects of bilateral cooperation between Kazakhstan and Belgium.

Ambassador M. Baimukhan spoke about the ongoing political and socio-economic reforms in Kazakhstan, initiated by the President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev within the framework of the concept of «hearing state». The issues of vaccination in Kazakhstan and production of the Kazakhstani vaccine «QazVac» were also discussed.

E.Tillieux, representing the large French-speaking Socialist Party (PS) in the Belgian parliament, gave a positive assessment of the socio-political transformations and the level of vaccination of the population in Kazakhstan.

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Discussing the issues of expanding inter-parliamentary ties between the two countries, the Belgian speaker noted the growing dynamics of the inter-parliamentary dialogue between the two countries. According to her, online negotiations with the Chairman of the Majilis of the Parliament of Kazakhstan Nurlan Nigmatulin in May 2021, as well as a trilateral meeting of two speakers of the Belgian parliament with the head of the Majilis on September 8, 2021 in Vienna within the framework of the 5th World Conference of Speakers of Parliaments gave an additional impetus to development of the inter-parliamentary dialogue.

The parties also welcomed the ongoing development of cooperation between the parliamentary friendship groups. The last meeting of the Chairman of the Committee on International Affairs, Defense and Security of the Majilis of the Parliament Aigul Kuspan with the Head of the Interparliamentary Group on Cooperation «Belgium - Central Asia» Tim Vandenput was held in June 2021.

In the context of economic diplomacy, the parties welcomed the upcoming visit of Belgian enterprises to Kazakhstan, planned in November 2021 with the support of the Belgian investment agencies AWEX and FIT. Today, Belgium is one of the largest investors in the economy of Kazakhstan, the volume of Belgian investments is more than 9 billion US dollars.

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A separate topic of conversation was the development of civil society, gender equality in Kazakhstan, higher education, ecology, regional security and the situation in Afghanistan. The Belgian politician, noting the significant role of women in political life, welcomed the growing number of women in the Kazakh Parliament and political parties. In addition, the situation around the Aral Sea, Kazakhstan’s efforts to combat climate change in the context of the upcoming UN Conference on Climate Change in Glasgow (COP-26) aroused a certain interest in E.Tillieux. Answering questions, the Kazakh diplomat also spoke about the international initiatives of the First President of Kazakhstan - Elbasy Nursultan Nazarbayev in the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons and the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, the 30th anniversary of its closure is marked this year.

At the end of the meeting, Ambassador M. Baimukhan reaffirmed the invitation of the Kazakh side for the Belgian Speaker E.Tillieux and the Belgian deputies to pay an official visit to Kazakhstan.

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