3 September 2003, Volume 4, Number 22
IN FOCUSNGOS WORK TO IMPROVE LAW ON DISPLACED PERSONS. Every few weeks, local media carry news reports of desperate people who have fled wars and live in dilapidated housing as they picket indifferent government offices. In response to the chronic problem, a partnership of international organizations, governments, and local NGOs has been working steadily since 2000 to examine laws and practices that affect internally displaced persons or IDPs. "IDPs" is the technical term for people forced to move inside the borders of a country due to such upheavals as armed conflict and environmental or natural disasters, as distinct from the catchall term "refugee," which properly refers only to those who have crossed international borders. By remaining in their home states, IDPs fall through the cracks of both domestic and international law and tend to be ignored. A new generation of activists have gained the attention of international specialists and the cooperation of governments to tackle the gap between local legislation and universal standards in an effort to ameliorate the plight of the displaced by gaining legal recognition for their rights so they can fight for them.
More than 800,000 people are internally displaced (as distinct from refugees) in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, the victims of mainly civil wars. Although exact figures can be difficult to obtain because people are dispersed, about 280,000 are displaced in Georgia mainly from the civil war with separatists in Abkhazia, and at least 560,000 in Azerbaijan from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and as many as 25,000 in Armenia.
Recently, the advocates for better laws to help the displaced released a comprehensive and detailed report, "The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and the Law of the South Caucasus: Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan," edited by Roberta Cohen, Walter Kalin, and Erin Mooney, a 371-page study prepared jointly by the Brookings Institution-SAIS Project on Internal Displacement, the Office of Democratic Institutes and Human Rights of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, and the American Society of International Law. The handbook contains all the relevant laws of the Caucasus, contrasted with international laws, and contains a detailed analysis and summaries of conferences with lawyers and other experts.
Unlike the work of many international specialists who zoom in to a troubled area for a brief time and later return to distant capitals to write their reports, this joint effort in the Caucasus was "a real civil society effort" in the words of participants who talked with "RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies" about their experiences. Local lawyers in Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan provided the impetus for taking discussion beyond the seminar rooms to attempt to affect policy, and got the help they needed from international experts.
The effort to organize nongovernmental groups was spearheaded by the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, a group of enthusiastic attorneys working to change their country's laws in a variety of areas related to human rights and democracy. Registered in 1994 after five years of activity, the association has grown from 80 founders to 675 members, deliberately keeping the age for eligible members below 40 to ensure fresh faces and active participation. In addition to the Georgian lawyers, the Institute of State and Law of the Georgian Academy of Sciences, the Legal Clinic of the Faculty of Law at Yerevan State University, the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law in Yerevan, and the Center of Legal and Economic Education in Baku were involved in the legal-reform efforts and the writing of the "Guiding Principles" report edited by the team at Brookings.
Despite their differences and the very real presence of the region's "frozen conflicts," all three governments in the Caucasus sat down at the table repeatedly with project organizers to cooperate at least on this issue of the displaced. And while governments are often at loggerheads with local NGOs, in this effort they were actually proud to show off their local lawyers' knowledge and accomplishment to international experts, participants say.
Advocates for the displaced face the still-entrenched legacy of the Soviet "propiska" or residence-permit system, as well as tumultuous current events created by seemingly insurmountable difficulties. Particularly at election time, the issue of the displaced and their return as well as their right to vote force themselves increasingly into the public eye. A group of 17 women displaced from Abkhazia took at least one hostage and poured gasoline on themselves, threatening to commit self-immolation, UPI reported 20 August. The desperate action took place after talks between the government and the women broke down. They are among the thousands who fled Abkhazia when separatists declared independence in 1992, still seeking justice.
Now that more than a decade has gone by since thousands of people fled wars in the wake of the Soviet crack-up, activists are trying to focus on the day-to-day problems of individual displaced persons in obtaining housing, education, and medical care and asking politicians not to wait until the political peace is finally established. The first step in gaining attention and action is changing and adding laws.
In their work, the advocates for the displaced were inspired by the "Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement," a compendium of existing international standards as well as principles that have evolved for the treatment of IDPs consistent with international law. The "Guiding Principles" were drafted by Frances Deng, the UN secretary-general's special representative on the internally displaced, at the request of the UN Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly over a two-year period and presented in 1998.
While not a binding treaty, the principles reflect international law and incorporate many elements of existing treaties. By making the protection and care of IDPs the responsibility of governments and appealing to governments' sense of the need to control their own populations, the advocates are hoping they adhere to the principles developed, including the concepts that such persons are involuntary migrants, that they have the right to protection while displaced, and the right to humanitarian assistance.
A key factor in making possible this collaboration effort between government and civil society is that the rulers of the Caucasus see the displaced as their own people, unlike the situation of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Kurds in Turkey, or the Chechens in Russia, where officialdom sees the displaced as alien. As Frances Deng, who is also co-director of the Brookings project, testified in the U.S. Congressional Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe in June, the governments in the Caucasus do express solidarity with their displaced populations. "But unfortunately, there is a situation whereby the political agendas, in particular the ongoing conflicts and the emphasis given on the goal of return, tends to make the IDPs hostages to the situation," said Deng.
As international donors move from emergency relief to development assistance as the second decade of displacement gets well under way, they believe there is some leverage to be had with governments desperate for aid. With elections coming up this fall, there is pressure once again to address the IDP problem. In Georgia, since the 1992-93 civil war when separatists with Russian backing defeated the Georgian military, some 280,000 IDPs remain, one-third of them in Tbilisi. Elizabeth Eagan, a specialist on Caucasus affairs writing for eurasianet.org, said in a 1 September article that President Eduard Shevardnadze's efforts for IDPs have been "lackluster" and that the government appears interested in keeping the displaced where they are to use their eventual return as leverage in Abkhazia. Government officials do not inform the displaced of their rights.
Some officials objected that creating a separate law on IDPs would in fact lead to privileging of the displaced and discrimination against others. Like other international experts in the field, Roberta Cohen, the co-director of the Brooking project, advocated separate laws for IDPs. "We felt it would help improve equality," she said. Ultimately, governments took their advice. "You've identified our forgotten people," one leader admitted to the NGOs.
Fixing the laws sets the stage for a solution, but implementing them is much harder. In Azerbaijan, IDPs are still living in "rickety shacks, railway carriages, and tiny mud huts," "The Moscow Times" reported on 24 June, calling the situation "a convenient propaganda tool" for the Azerbaijani government. In the view of "The Moscow Times" and other observers of the region, if permanent resettlement "would mean admitting that Azerbaijan lost the war" the displaced and refugees will never go home. The government has started building some new shelters, it is far from adequate to serve the large population of displaced.
In Armenia, some people are still displaced from the 1988 earthquake. Assistance for old and new displaced has been slow in coming. As elsewhere in the region, people forced from their homes are still living in empty hospital and hotel rooms, old dilapidated Soviet rest homes, and even shipping containers. The situation in Armenia has received less attention, and the problem of the internally displaced as distinct from refugees was a new one for the government. Accordingly, international refugee agencies have already spent nearly two years attempting to map and quantify the numbers of displaced and their living conditions in an effort to gain attention of officials who control resources at home and abroad.
In Georgia, IDPs continue to fear that if they vote in the place where they find themselves, they will lose their benefits and option to return. Governments did change the laws, but now vigorous efforts to ensure implementation and public education are required, say local NGO activists. The new Election Code adopted in August 2001 does provide suffrage to IDPs, and experience in a past by-election yields a precedent for implementation of the law, but now the real test of Georgia's verbal and legal commitments will come in November parliamentary elections.
While the law may be in their favor, as the leader of the IDP Women's Association told the Brookings project participants, IDPs in Georgia strongly fear that they will lose their right to return if they take part in elections, whether by voting or running as candidates in the election. As the Georgian Young Lawyers Association's Giorgi Chkeidze pointed out, regulations governing actual registration procedures for IDPs are not governed by the law governing all registration, but exist as a special case. Nevertheless, the law is clear, and IDPs will not lose their benefits or their right to return to their original place of residence if they register and vote. It is another matter to persuade vulnerable people that they can claim this right, and compel recalcitrant officials not to hinder it. "Dissemination of information about the right to vote without penalty and loss of benefits will arm the IDPs to participate in the elections," said Erin Mooney, deputy director of the Brookings project. (See "Recommended News Links" below for more information.)
REGIONALBACK TO SCHOOL, AND BACK TO THE SAME PROBLEMS. As students across the region returned to school on 1 September, once again they faced deep-seated problems -- ranging from economic deprivation to ethnic divisions to government desire for heavy ideological control -- that exist not only in their schools but in their societies, making getting an education that much more difficult. In some impoverished areas, children did not have supplies or enough teachers, and others more well-off were still preoccupied with half-finished reform efforts to move away from strict letter grading and toward uniform testing. In still other areas, such as Macedonia this week, where ethnic Albanian villagers were fleeing a conflict involving government troops trying to catch a rebel leader, there could be no thought of school when survival was at stake.
In Bosnia, education officials of the Croat-Muslim federation, the Republika Srpska, the cantonal governments, and the Brcko district government signed an OSCE-sponsored agreement in Sarajevo on 8 August to replace the three ethnically based education systems with a unified one (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 September 2003). The reform project is aimed at ending the costly duplication of administrative structures. Until now -- in some mixed Muslim and Croatian areas in particular -- separate, parallel systems existed in one and the same school building, with pupils of different ethnic groups using the same computer facilities or other specialized equipment at different times of the day. Now, they are expected to share the same facilities, but the efforts are dogged by nationalists on all sides who have attempted to rewrite textbooks according to their own lights, and advocate separate Croatian, Bosnian, and Serbian "languages," complete with artificial formulations and grammatical structures in their respective textbooks.
In Russia, around 100 Russian schools will not open on 1 September because of unsatisfactory sanitary conditions, First Deputy Health Minister Gennadii Onishchenko announced on 29 August, lenta.ru reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 September 2003). Earlier, Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu said that 95 percent of schools are not in compliance with fire-safety regulations. The number of schoolchildren in Russia will decline to 5 million in 2007, according to Education Minister Vladimir Filippov, which could lead to a significant reduction in the number of teachers, and cause yet more job loss among state-sector employees, RIA-Novosti reported on 27 August.
According to RIA-Novosti, 34 million people are currently enrolled in Russia's educational institutions -- 18 million of them in schools, 6.5 million at institutes, and the rest at other facilities, according to Deputy Prime Minister Galina Karelova, who met with President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin to discuss education. Putin made particular mention of Russia's 5,600 schools in remote areas where pupils do not exceed 25. For the first time, Russian schools may be used as venues for the teachings of state-recognized religious organizations registered for at least 15 years, primarily Russian Orthodox and Muslim, Education Minister Filippov announced, indicating the clergy would decide the content, not the ministry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 September 2003). Yet the announcement was quickly reversed in Moscow by another official who said that with many competing religious groups in the capital, friction would be avoided by not having religious education at all.
In Belarus, dozens of students of an independent lyceum taken over by authorities who were barred from a building their school had previously occupied moved their desks outside on the street in a novel form of protest that attracted hundreds of supporters. They listened as prominent figures in the democratic movement gave lessons in the open air, charter97.org reported on 2 September. Over the protests of parents and children, a new headmaster has been installed in the school, which is ostensibly in need of repairs, making it impossible for the lyceum to function. Education officials attempted to disperse the student body of some 140 children to other schools, but they are holding out for schooling in their native Belarusian language on subjects free of state indoctrination (see "RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies," 7 August 2003). Education officials were themselves herded into classrooms to receive training in President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's new state ideology program, which will be mandatory in all universities, local press reported.
In Moldova, the Education Ministry announced a pilot program of "integrated history" in 45 high schools starting in September, azi.md reported, citing BASA. But teachers in the district of Ialoveni meeting at an annual conference this week opposed the courses. Their aim was "to hide the true historic origin of Moldovans -- the fact that they are Romanians," a history teacher told BASA. At a previous conference on 12 August, history teachers expressed their disapproval of efforts by communist authorities to replace the Romanian history book with the integrated course, and also criticized a Moldovan-Romanian dictionary prepared by former communist deputy Vasile Stati. In an interview with the governmental paper "Moldova Suverana" last week, Education Minister Valentin Beniu sought to dismiss fears shared by many intellectuals in Romania and Moldova that the new history course would reflect a "pro-Soviet" perspective, BASA reported.
UZBEKISTANWAVE OF ATTACKS ON HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS. A leading Uzbek human rights activist was severely beaten by unidentified attacks in Tashkent on 28 August, "The Moscow Times" and human rights groups reported on 29 August, in the latest of a wave of attacks on human rights defenders. Surat Ikramov, a leading member of the Independent Group for Human Rights Defenders, was hospitalized with a concussion, two broken ribs, and bruises, "The Moscow Times" reported, citing AP. According to a letter of support released publicly by the New York-based International League for Human Rights (ILHR), on the morning of 28 August, Ikramov, was driving home in his car, following a meeting he had with a judge to set up a court date to appeal the conviction of Ruslan Sharipov, a human rights activist and journalist currently in prison. Ikramov saw a man hail him from the side of the road and pulled over, whereupon four masked men in camouflage dragged him from the car, placed a plastic bag over his head, and bound his arms and legs. The assailants put Ikramov in the car, and drove away, continuing to beat him and suffocate him on the way.
According to a press release from the Independent Group for Human Rights Defenders, the kidnappers talked about demanding up to $10,000 to release Ikramov, but in the end took only his clothing, money, and car, abandoning him by the Chirchik River when he lost consciousness. When he awoke, he managed to crawl for four hours to the nearest traffic-police station to obtain assistance and call his family, "The Moscow Times" reported. Ikramov told the paper that he had been expecting an attack because he had had a number of threatening phone calls.
The ILHR feels that this incident is directly connected to Ikramov's involvement as a public defender in the case of Sharipov, who recently received a five-year prison sentence on charges of homosexuality (which remains a punishable offense in Uzbekistan) and sexual misconduct with a minor, believed to be motivated by his critical reporting. With a wave of attacks on human rights activists and journalists in Uzbekistan in recent years, the attack on Ikramov is believed to be politically motivated, and the ILHR has called for a full investigation of the kidnapping and beating. Ikramov has been active in supporting the rights of dissident Muslims.
Human Rights Watch has reported a number of other incidents involving attacks against human rights defenders in recent weeks apparently related to Uzbekistan's Independence Day celebrations on 1 September. A group of women beat Mutbar Tajibaeva, the organizer of a protest in the city of Ferghana, and other picketers on 20 August. Tajibaeva was hospitalized for a week for treatment of her injuries and is demanding the resignation of the local prosecutor, since she believes the attack was ordered by the government. On 26 August, police detained Oleg Sarapulov, assistant of the jailed journalist Ruslan Sharipov, along with a friend, after they went to the police station in an effort to recover stolen mobile telephones. Police questioned them in an intimidating manner about alleged sexual activity for money and threatened to press charges against them. Prior to this, they had received anonymous threats over the telephone that they would suffer the same fate as Sharipov. On 28 August the Andijan Province Court pressed criminal defamation charges against a human rights defender, Saidjahon Zainabitdinov, in relation to an article that he wrote on police corruption. Activists who were planning to attend a protest that Ikramov had been helping to organize outside the parliament the day of his attack were effectively put under house arrest to prevent them from leaving their homes that day, Human Rights Watch said. Others who managed to arrive at the proposed picket site near the parliament building were detained and driven away in buses, and later released. One activist, Elena Urlaeva, was on her way to the protest when people who later said they were from the National Security Service stopped her car and forcefully dragged her from it, kicking her. They detained her for several hours and later released her.
Meanwhile, in a move that distracted from the government's crackdown on independent human rights defenders, the Uzbek cabinet issued a decree on 27 August setting up a six-member board within the Justice Ministry to protect human rights, uza.uz reported on 28 August (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 August 2003). The board is to have branches in all oblast justice departments and in Karakalpakstan. The decree orders the Justice Ministry to take additional measures to protect citizens' rights, to help develop civil society, to improve law enforcement, and to enhance the independence of the judiciary. It reminds the Justice Ministry specifically that it controls the judiciary, and not local authorities.
Meanwhile, human rights activists continue to press the courts to bring the perpetrators of the violence against them to justice.
RECOMMENDED NEWS LINKSARMENIA. Legal Aid is the website of members of a coalition of organizations providing legal services and information on human rights. Links for members include the Yerevan State University Legal Clinic, the Armenian Young Lawyers Association, the Center for Youth Legal and Social Support, and Public Advocacy. http://www.legalaid.am/english/english.htm
BELARUS. "Authorities Launch Further Crackdown on Independent Media, NGOs." Another crackdown by the authorities against nongovernmental organizations and independent media is under way in Belarus. Some commentators see this as the start of a campaign by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to change the constitution to allow him to run for a third term in office. http://www.rferl.org/nca/features/2003/09/02092003171152.asp
CAUCASUS. The Caucasus NGO Networking Initiative (CRINGONET) was initiated by the Danish Refugee Council in 2000 to bring together groups working to help the displaced and refugees throughout the region. Members include the Center of Legal and Economic Education in Baku. http://www.cringo.net
GEORGIA. This portal contains links for a variety of groups working on human rights, specifically related to displaced persons as well as war veterans and disabled, including the Georgia Young Lawyers Association (whose website is currently under repair) and the Union for the Future of Socially Vulnerable Population and Refugees. http://georgia-gateway.org/index.php3?cid=532
RUSSIA. Pervoe sentyabrya (First of September) is a publishing house that produces newspapers and literature on education. Current articles discuss the political and economic aspects of educational reform. http://www.1september.ru
CAUCASUS. The Brookings Project on Internal Displacement has recently released a study of efforts by a group of international and local human rights activists to change laws affecting the internally displaced, "Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and the Law on the South Caucasus." The report is in English and is currently being translated into Russian. Copies are available upon request to email@example.com. http://www.brookings.edu/fp/projects/idp/idp.htm