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OSCE: Helsinki Report Finds Human Rights Problems Plague Entire Region

  • Antoine Blua

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) promotes democracy and assists its 55 participating states in building democratic institutions. It also acts as an instrument of conflict prevention, crisis management, and postconflict rehabilitation. But its member states must do the hard work of actually implementing reforms. And according to the annual report of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, a lot more remains to be done to firmly establish democracy in many parts of the OSCE region. (For a country-by-country fact sheet, see below.)

Prague, 27 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The 500-page report by the Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation (IHF) covers human rights developments in 38 member states of the OSCE in 2004.

Aaron Rhodes, executive director of the IHF, told RFE/RL: "It's difficult to make a generalization about human rights in such a group of countries, some of which are the most democratic and liberal countries in the world and some others are extremely repressive. But what you can say is that, in some areas especially, not much progress is being made in human rights."

The 38 countries reviewed in the IHF report are located in Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and North America. Twenty-four are former socialist states, while 13 are established Western democracies. Turkey is also included.

According to the IHF, judicial systems fell short of international standards in more than 60 percent of the 38 countries reviewed.

Corruption, the lack of judicial independence, and the poor training of judicial professionals were of particular concern. Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Serbia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan were singled out as needing further improvement.

Rhodes says reports of police brutality or other police misconduct were received from 80 percent of the countries under scrutiny. "We found that in 80 percent of the countries that we scrutinized in this report, there are serious problems as regards police brutality," he said. "And in 10 of them, some of the practices constituted torture. In a majority of countries that are covered in the report, there are problems in prisons, especially overcrowding."

The document says 60 percent of the countries reviewed violated the right to asylum or other rights of refugees and migrants. According to the report, antiterrorism measures also curtailed many basic rights throughout the region, including in Britain, the Russian republic of Chechnya, the United States, and Uzbekistan.

Rhodes says the IHF's report should not be construed as a criticism of the OSCE, but is rather meant to highlight how well the group's members are adhering to their human rights commitments.

"The OSCE is a framework in which participating states can work together to raise the level of compliance with the human rights commitments that are undertaken in the OSCE process," Rhodes said. "Some states honor their commitments, and some states ignore their commitments. Of course, you can't blame the OSCE as such for the failure of its members to approach their obligations in the OSCE in an honorable way."

Urdur Gunnarsdottir, a spokeswoman for the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw, agrees. "Many of the concerns that the International Helsinki Federation raises are the same concerns that have been raised many times by the OSCE," she said. "Those regard issues such as the situation of free and fair elections, human rights, the fight against intolerance, etc., etc.. This is, of course, the responsibility of participating states. The OSCE, as an organization, is not going to change everything."

The IHF describes itself as a self-governing group of nongovernmental, not-for-profit organizations that act to protect human rights throughout the Caucasus, Central Asia, Europe, and North America.



The following are excerpts from the IHF's report on the OSCE region pertaining to countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region, as well as the United States.


The Armenian government failed to take effective measures in 2004 to address several serious prevailing human rights problems.

Armenia's opposition activists faced harassment, prosecution on questionable grounds, and were beaten up by the police or by "unidentified individuals."

A new law adopted in April 2004 enhanced the rights of public authorities to restrict public gatherings.

The authorities also took indirect measures to silence critical media outlets, including the use of financial pressure, as well as unnecessary sanitary and fire inspections.


Azerbaijan's opposition remained inactive in 2004 following the previous year's flawed elections in which Ilham Aliyev was elected president. Postelection protests were quashed through massive government repression.

Courts demonstrated dependence on the executive branch, especially in politically sensitive cases such as those regarding arrests for participation in the demonstrations.

Prison conditions remained harsh, with numerous allegations of torture and ill treatment made by prisoners whose arrests were most likely politically motivated.


President Alyaksandr Lukashenka kept Belarus in a tight, authoritarian grip in 2004.

Both the October parliamentary elections and referendum to decide Lukashenka's eligibility in the forthcoming presidential elections fell seriously short of international standards.

The government imposed excessive restrictions on the freedom of expression, association, and the media, while violations of the right to peaceful assembly continued.

Fair trial standards were repeatedly violated by the courts. Police misconduct continued, including arbitrary arrests and ill treatment of detainees.


Bosnia and Herzegovina's October local elections were held in accordance with international standards of free and fair elections. However, the country trailed behind its neighboring countries in many respects.

The institutional protection of human rights was in stagnation as no adequate replacement was found for the Human Rights Chamber. The body was abolished in late 2003, leaving individuals without appropriate and efficient recourse to the courts.


One year after the Rose Revolution, the country led by President Mikheil Saakashvili could be characterized as having an extremely strong central government and sweeping presidential powers, with no functioning system of checks and balances.

In 2004, Georgia had virtually no parliamentary opposition, a judicial system that was not yet sufficiently independent and functioning, and a self-censoring media.

Observers expressed concern that many of the measures aimed at reforms were adopted in a rush, were ill conceived, and not in line with European standards to which Georgia has committed itself.


A lack of pluralism continued to characterize Kazakhstan's political arena in 2004. The opposition won only one seat in the fall parliamentary elections, which remained unoccupied. In a further serious blow to the opposition, the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan movement was liquidated.

Meanwhile, media ownership remained highly concentrated in the hands of companies close to President Nursultan Nazarbaev. The threat of libel and defamation charges also encouraged widespread self-censorship among media outlets.

The situation regarding freedom of religion deteriorated toward the end of the year, with reports of new cases of harassment against unregistered religious communities. The authorities further stepped up efforts to control the practice of Islam.


Serious human rights violations continued in Kyrgyzstan in 2004, with human rights activists, journalists, and independent media outlets facing intimidation and harassment.

Serious irregularities took place in the elections to local councils in October, as well as in the parliamentary elections in early 2005. Those irregularities led to an uprising that forced President Askar Akaev to flee the country.

The judiciary was dependent both on the Akaev administration and local governments. Judges were vulnerable to bribes, and lawyers were hindered from working freely.

Prisons remained seriously substandard and suffered from overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions.


Three years after the signing of the Ohrid Framework Agreement, hailed as the peaceful solution to Macedonia's 2001 armed conflict, a large number of the envisaged legal and practical changes were made in the country.

However, some of these changes did not result in general improvements in the exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms. Both the laws regulating the principle of nondiscrimination and their implementation were inadequate.

Many new legal regulations contradicted other legislation, including the constitution, and resulted in political arbitrariness in their interpretation and application.


Widespread human rights violations continued across Moldova in 2004.

Freedom of the media deteriorated, principally due to a government firing of employees at the public broadcaster Teleradio Moldova. Unofficial censorship and pressure on the media remained widespread.

Moldovan law-enforcement agents continued to use torture and ill-treatment as a common investigation method to extract "confessions," which were then used as evidence in court.

There was pressure from the authorities on the courts, and widespread corruption among judges remained a serious problem.

Religious minority groups faced harassment. No Muslim groups had been registered by the end of 2004.

In Transdniester, the already alarming human rights situation deteriorated further. Authorities continued attacks against human rights defenders, while policies toward the Moldovan/Romanian minority were hardened.


The IHF says 2004 was characterized by a deterioration in the status of civil rights and liberties in Romania.

The Social Democratic Party (PSD), which ruled the country until December 2004, largely succeeded in controlling nearly all sectors of the country's political, economic, social, and cultural lives.

Many crucial questions regarding the judicial system remained unsolved, showing a lack of genuine will to make the judiciary truly independent.

Accountability of law-enforcement officers for misconduct has not improved. New cases of ill-treatment were reported, including unlawful use of firearms, which in some cases led to deaths.

Religious minority groups faced harassment, and the representation of national or ethnic minorities in political life was restricted by new legal provisions.


All sides in Chechnya's conflict committed serious abuses against civilians, including "disappearances," torture, and extrajudicial killings. Such abuses were increasingly perpetrated by armed formations operating under officials loyal to Moscow.

In the name of fighting terrorism, Moscow also engaged in efforts to further centralize power, restrict democratic and civil liberties, and establish bureaucratic control over civil society.

Human rights defenders and independent journalists were harassed, in particular those who were critical of official antiterrorism policies.

Due process violations remained rampant within the court system, and law-enforcement authorities continued to engage in the use of force with a high degree of impunity.


In 2004, the high hopes of Serbia's potential to move toward transition were dashed.

Former President Slobodan Milosevic's legacy turned out to be a serious obstacle, penetrating society's basic values. Anachronistic nationalism continued to influence national interests.

The cabinet failed to offer a vision or resolutions to problems such as the status of Kosovo, the state union of Serbia and Montenegro, or a new constitution, while reaffirming its commitment to association with the European Union.

Furthermore, despite numerous indications of its entropy, the army continued to be regarded as an untouchable institution.


President Imomali Rakhmonov continued his authoritarian rule in 2004.

A number of opposition leaders faced allegedly politically motivated charges, ahead of the February 2005 parliamentary elections.

Independent media faced various obstacles, including self-censorship due to the threat of defamation charges. Cases of intimidation and violence targeting journalists who were critical of the authorities were also reported.

The government continued to restrict independent religious activities. Numerous members and supporters of the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir Islamic group were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms, in trials that fell short of international due process standards. In these and other cases, torture and ill-treatment were frequently reported.


President Saparmurat Niyazov continued to rule Turkmenistan with an iron fist in 2004. The IHF characterizes Turkmenistan as the most repressive state in the OSCE region.

There were no legal opposition movements or alternative mass media in the country.

Security police continued to closely monitor all organized activity and harassed members of religious minorities and nongovernmental organizations.

Members of ethnic minorities were systematically discriminated against in employment and education.


The political developments in Ukraine were dominated in 2004 by protests that led to opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko being elected president.

During the October election campaign, state media openly supported the pro-government candidate, Viktor Yanukovych. Several critical media outlets were suspended and journalists fired.

Large-scale arrests and short-term detention of opposition activists were also commonplace during the campaign.


The IHF says the United States' reputation as an advocate of human rights and democracy continued to be seriously damaged by its own human rights record in 2004.

Coercive interrogation tactics that frequently amounted to degrading treatment and even torture of detainees were common practice in places of detention outside the United States but under U.S. military control, such as Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and facilities in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In addition, a number of practices that undermine international law and human rights standards have became prevalent in the U.S. government's "war on terror." They included the indefinite detention of terrorist suspects who were neither charged with a crime nor brought before a court, and the practice of transferring suspects to states known for torturing detainees.

In positive developments, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional for individuals who were under the age of 18 at the time of their offense.


As in previous years, the Uzbek government prevented opposition parties from participating in the parliamentary elections in December 2004.

Media remained under strict state control during the campaign leading up to the polls, while authorities further stepped up efforts to restrict the circulation of independent information.

Human rights defenders were subjected to persecution, including detention and physical assault.

In response to a series of attacks by militants in March and April, and another in late July, the authorities intensified their long-standing campaign against "religious extremists." This campaign has indiscriminately targeted thousands of Muslims who have not been involved in any violent activities but who have merely practiced their beliefs outside state-controlled institutions.

(The IHF report is available at