New IHF Report documents human rights abuses in OSCE region:
Escalation in Central Asia

The International Helsinki Federation, 22 May 2001

Vienna, 25 May 2001. The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) today published its report Human Rights in the OSCE Region: the Balkans, the Caucasus, Europe, Central Asia and North America (Report 2001). The 428-page report covers main human rights concerns in the member states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in the calendar year 2000. It is based on research by the Helsinki Committees and other independent, non-governmental groups and the IHF Secretariat. The report describes, inter alia, attacks on human rights defenders; violations of the rights of minorities and minority religions; persecutions of journalists and scientists; restrictions on free expression and the right to association; violations of humanitarian law; and torture and ill-treatment in detention - all problems that cannot in many cases be remedied because of the absence of independent courts securing fair trials.

The most precarious human rights developments took place in Central Asian member states of the OSCE - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - where an escalation of violations was reported in almost all fields of human rights, combined with increasing centralization of the authority of presidents and their administrations.

Massive abuses continued in Chechnya and the international community failed to put effective pressure on Russia to halt violations of humanitarian law by Russian forces.

In Belarus, most basic human rights were violated and President Lukashenka enjoyed almost unlimited powers. Ukraine appeared to follow the same path and took efforts to expand presidential powers and to increase authoritarian rule.

With Slobodan Milosevic's departure new hope emerged for more respect for human rights and the rule of law in Serbia. Yugoslavia was soon readmitted to many international organizations. However, the new government of Vojislav Kostunica continued nationalist politics and equivocated on cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

Five years after the signing of the Peace Agreement in Dayton and Paris, Bosnia and Herzegovina remained unstable both in respect of its domestic political reality and its international position. The three nationalist parties in power obstructed the implementation of Peace Agreement and blocked the development of a system of authority based on the rule of law.

Elections and referenda in the new democracies were riddled with violations of international standards (e.g. in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan). In some countries authorities were mobilized to coerce the electorate to support them - e.g. under the threat of losing one’s job - and opposition candidates were refused registration (e.g. in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine). Due to lack of competition, international organizations deemed the presidential elections in Uzbekistan a priori unfair and refused to send observers.

Freedom of expression suffered in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Greece, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine and all Central Asian countries. The situation was worst in Turkmenistan, while Greece received the lowest score among countries with a long democratic tradition. In many countries, criminal defamation laws were still in force or government critics and outspoken media were issued huge fines under the Civil Code endangering their existence and resulting in self-censorship. Media outlets were shut down under various pretexts and journalists faced harassment and violence. Critical journalists were often denied access to information. On the positive side, the Croatian media enjoyed significantly more freedom as a result of the change of government, although problems still remained.

In most former Soviet Republics, judicial systems still reflected Soviet practices. The prosecutors enjoyed wide powers that should have been transferred to other authorities and tended to protect state interests rather than individual rights. Violations of due process standards were commonplace. The judiciary was poorly paid, enjoyed little public respect, was vulnerable for bribes, and often took sides with the prosecution. But also in Austria, a member of the EU, judges protested against attempts of political forces to interfere in the administration of justice.

Misconduct by law enforcement officials was reported from all over the region, including Western Europe and the United States. In numerous countries such conduct amounted to torture (including in Bulgaria, Georgia, Turkey, Ukraine, Central Asia). Foreigners and ethnic minorities (particularly Roma) were frequently singled out for abuse. The pressure for high clarification rates – which in many countries were linked to compensation for police officers – contributed to the use of torture and other forms of ill-treatment. Abuse of military recruits was frequently reported (in Armenia, Kazakhstan, and other countries).

Restrictive laws and practices on freedom of religion remained in force (in Belgium, Macedonia, Moldova, Russia and elsewhere). Increasing measures were taken (or draft laws were pending) in several countries to restrict the activities on “non-traditional” religious communities (for example in Bulgaria, France, Georgia, Hungary, Kazakhstan).

Overcrowding, abuse by prison staff and other poor prison conditions gave rise to revolts in Italy and Turkey. Other problems included poor hygiene, the spread of diseases, and lack of adequate medical care and recreation. Holding juvenile delinquents under conditions totally unsuitable to them led to self-mutilation in Kazakhstan and suicides in Latvia.

Asylum seekers faced significant problems finding shelter. Although the asylum laws in EU countries were frequently criticized by human rights organizations for containing vague formulations such as “safe countries of origin” or “safe third countries” and for using accelerated procedures even at their borders, many former Socialist states adopted or considered similar laws (for example in the Czech Republic, Lithuania). In violation of international law, minors were frequently held in custody pending the processing of their asylum procedure in Austria, Germany, Hungary and other OSCE states.

The return of refugees to war-stricken areas in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia was still slow and those who risked return often faced harassment and violence.

Many countries lacked laws on conscientious objection or their legislations were not up to par with international standards, including Armenia, Belarus, Greece, Russia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Montenegro.

Ethnic discrimination and racism increased. In Germany, the number of racially-motivated criminal acts by extreme rightist groups increased by 50% from 1999. In many countries the lack of legislation directly dealing with discrimination, racially motivated acts, the organization of groups that promoted racial intolerance or legal provisions providing for redress for discriminatory acts or behaviour encouraged the spread of such practices (in Austria, Finland, Hungary, Sweden). In many countries (including Slovakia, Spain, and Sweden), authorities were reluctant to identify racially motivated crimes as such. Latvia witnessed the mobilisation of small groups of Latvian and Russian racist extremists, but, positively, law enforcement agencies responded vigorously.

Greece continued to recognize only one minority: the Turks as a religious minority. Roma faced discrimination, harassment and violence in almost all OSCE states. Roma fleeing violence in Kosovo were not welcome anywhere; in Macedonia and Hungary they enjoyed virtually no protection. In Italy Roma were regarded as "nomads"; authorities conducted abusive raids in Roma camps and police misconduct was commonplace. On the other hand, in Estonia and Latvia positive new legislation in the area of the use of minority languages was adopted.

Other topics covered by the report include, among other things, the death penalty, the right to peaceful assembly, women’s rights, the rights of the child, and activities of security services.

For further information: International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, Dr. Aaron Rhodes, Executive Director, or Brigitte Dufour, Deputy Executive Director, phone +43-1-408 88 22 (IHF) or mobiles +43-676-635 66 12 (Rhodes), +43-676-690 24 57 (Dufour). Copies of the report are available at the IHF Secretariat, Wickenburggasse 14/7, A-1080 Vienna, e-mail: [email protected]. The report is also posted at

The International Helsinki Federation, 22 May 2001