Normative Narratives

Transparency Report: The UK, Kazakhstan, Domestic and Extra-Territorial Human Rights Obligations

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Original Article:

“British Prime Minister David Cameron helped inaugurate the world’s costliest oil project in Kazakhstan on Sunday on a trip aimed at sealing business deals but quickly beset by questions over the Central Asian nation’s poor human rights record.

Kazakhstan hopes Cameron’s visit, the first by a serving British prime minister, will cement its status as a rising economic power and confer a degree of the legitimacy from the West it has long sought.”

“With a $200 billion economy, the largest in Central Asia, and deep oil and gas reserves, Kazakhstan is a tempting target. Britain is already among the top three sources of foreign direct investment, according to Kazakh officials.

Since its 1991 independence, officials say British firms have invested about $20 billion in their economy, part of a total $170 billion ploughed into Kazakhstan since then.

But more high profile trade links carry political risks.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said Cameron had a duty to use his trip to denounce human rights abuses.

‘We are very concerned about the serious and deteriorating human rights situation there in recent years, including credible allegations of torture, the imprisonment of government critics, (and) tight controls over the media and freedom of expression and association,’ it said in a letter on Friday.

Answering questions from reporters in Atyrau on Sunday, Cameron said he never put trade and business interests before rights.

‘We will raise all the issues, including human rights. That’s part of our dialogue and I’ll be signing a strategic partnership with Kazakhstan,’ he said.

‘Nothing is off the agenda, including human rights.’

“[Nursultan] Nazarbayev, a former Communist party apparatchik, has overseen market reforms and maintains wide popularity among the 17-million strong population, but has tolerated no dissent or opposition during his more than two decades in power.”

“Nazarbayev, a former steelworker who now holds the title “The Leader of the Nation”, says that he puts stability and rising living standards before hasty political changes in his steppe nation, the world’s ninth-largest by area and five times the size of France.

Comparing Kazakhstan to ‘Asian economic tigers’ like South Korea and Singapore, he has said he wants to turn it into ‘the economic snow leopard of Central Asia’

International human rights law places the state as the central and primary duty bearer for human rights obligations. Human rights include economic, social and cultural rights, in addition to political and civil rights. These rights are indivisible and interdependent, and must be upheld indiscriminately. Certain rights cannot be violated in the name of others—when Nazarbayev says he is putting economic and social progress ahead of political freedoms, he is failing to live up to international human rights law.

The reason behind this is that, without certain political and civil rights, developments are not sustainable. If standard of living gains are made at the benevolence of a dictator, these gains are unlikely to be made in an egalitarian way. Additionally, any gains made can easily be taken away in without any accountability or redress for society as a whole.

The state, however, is not the only actor accountable for the human rights implications of its actions. According to a recent publication, “Who Will Be Accountable”, released by the UN OHCHR and the CESR, “Under international human rights law, States are primarily accountable for respecting and protecting the rights of those within their jurisdiction. The proliferation of actors in international development—from business enterprises and multilateral economic institutions to private foundations—has made it necessary to develop a more multidimensional approach to accountability…However, the notion of shared responsibility has not led in practice to a clearer attribution of the respective and differentiated duties of each of the many actors in the development process. If all parties are responsible for achieving development goals, the risk is that no party can be held accountable for anything. (p 17-18)”

It certainly seems that nobody is willing to take responsibility for human rights violations in Kazahkstan—not the Kazakh government, not Cameron, not UK investors.

Cameron’s government has even been unresponsive to the UK and EU wide effects of austerity on human rights (the UK has been a strong supporter of austerity in the face of the Great Recession). Austerity programs have contributed to the prolonged economic slump in the UK (and the EU as a whole) that is some ways has been worse than even the Great Depression.

One would hope Cameron’s time spent as co-chair of the UN High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda would make him more in-tune with the importance of human rights for conflict prevention, economic growth and sustainable human development. Even if it has, it is also clear that Mr. Cameron, as an elected official, has more short-term concerns to deal with.

I am curious to hear what my readers think. Do states and private investors really have extra-territorial human rights obligations? Is it possible for external parties to even affect a dictator’s policies? Can economic and social progress be achieved without political and civil rights? Is international human rights law too idealistic and not pragmatic enough to be realistically applicable?

There is no question that whenever large sums of money are involved, human rights implications will follow. A large investment in Kazakh oil fields will undoubtedly further entrench the rulers.  But if a government is unwilling to listen to even its citizens, will it listen to other world leaders and investors? Perhaps it will—as they say, “money talks”.

Is it realistic to expect UK actors, who greatly need new avenues for economic growth and are seemingly unresponsive to proximal human rights issues, will risk a “slam dunk” investment in order to champion human rights (especially when that demand would likely be rebuffed by an insulated authoritarian regime)?

The stability and security needed for long term investments to pay off seems to exist in Kazakhstan. Is this the extent to which international actors care about human rights issues, or does a greater moral and long-term sustainable human development imperative exist?  

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One thought on “Transparency Report: The UK, Kazakhstan, Domestic and Extra-Territorial Human Rights Obligations

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