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Opinion Swiss must raise human rights issues in Astana

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In the shadow of Lenin: a statue of the former Soviet leader at Kazakhstan’s Baikonur cosmodrome


Human rights activists are concerned about the mixed messages that may come when Swiss political leaders appear at the Expo 2017 in Kazakhstan.

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This summer Kazakhstan is the first Central Asian country to host a world fair, Expo 2017 Astanaexternal link, dedicated to the energy of the future. The expo, which opened on June 10, has so far not been subject to much mention or debate in Swiss or other European media. Nevertheless, a public debate would be warranted seeing as Switzerland’s president, along with the foreign and finance ministers, will travel to the expo on official visits this summer, and thus risk lending legitimacy to an authoritarian regime that regularly violates human rights.

Marius Fossum works for the Helsinki Committee, a Norwegian non-governmental organization that tackles human rights issues through monitoring, reporting, teaching and democracy support.  Fossum has also worked at the Norwegian embassy in Azerbaijan and for an ecological organization in Tajikistan.


Whereas European media largely have remained silent about the expo, the event is given considerable coverage by state-controlled media in Kazakhstan, where readers and viewers can marvel at the dazzling architectonic feats (and costs) of the expo site. The showcased grandiose nature of the expo naturally reflects the regime’s efforts to brand itself as a modern and well-functioning state.

Troublesome human rights record

However, the country’s troublesome human rights record tells a different story: The authorities heavy-handedly crack down on human rights and freedoms, and human rights defenders, activists, union leaders and journalists languish in prison for their legitimate and peaceful activities. Freedom of expression and the rights to peaceful assembly and association are under particular pressure, whereas independent media is all but stifled. Alarmingly, just last month a journalist was brutally stabbed while traveling to brief western diplomats on human rights issues.

Against this backdrop, the press service of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairsexternal link reports that President Doris Leuthard will visit the expo on August 11, and that Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter will visit on June 19. Finance Minister Ueli Maurer will visit the expo on a yet to-be-announced date, “during a trip to Central Asia”. The expo and these visits should be covered by Swiss media because authoritarian states with problematic rights records routinely exploit high-level visits from democratic countries to provide legitimacy to the ruling regime. Without freedom of expression and a free, critical press the regime is free to present its very own version of the visits. In other words, the visiting officials risk becoming an instrument in the regime’s ongoing efforts to scrub rights abuses under the carpet.

The risk of course is amplified as the visiting officials represent a European country with a widely known and long-standing commitment to human rights, both domestically and in its foreign policies – such as Switzerland. Add to that the magnitude of the visits – three out of seven Federal Council Members, including the President, will go to the expo – and the risk appears even greater. The Norwegian Helsinki Committee of course, does not advice the President and Cabinet Ministers to stay home, but to take certain necessary steps to reduce the risk.

Call for action

Accordingly, the Swiss president and the foreign minister must make human rights and democracy a meaningful part of their respective visits’ programs, and make sure to put key human rights cases on the agenda. They should publicly and privately call for the release of imprisoned activists and union leaders, and meet with local human rights defenders, who are facing increasing pressure. In addition, the president and foreign minister should call on the authorities to lift undue restrictions on fundamental freedoms, and allow genuine freedom of expression, assembly and association, as well as a free press.

Placing human rights on the agenda would harmonize with Switzerland’s foreign policies and commitment to human rights, as expressed, for instance, in the 2013 Swiss Guidelines on the Protection of Human Rights Defendersexternal link. Incidentally the document in question highlights, as essential to human rights defenders, the freedoms of expression, assembly and association, all of which are, as mentioned, under particular pressure in Kazakhstan. Speaking out for human rights in Kazakhstan would also send an effective signal to the regime that Switzerland does not turn a blind eye to rights abuses, and more importantly, a strong and welcome message of support to Kazakhstan’s pressured human rights community. Doing so would prevent the regime from politically taking advantage of Switzerland’s commitment to human rights and democracy.

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee has, together with Human Rights Watch, sent a letter to the Swiss president and foreign minister. The letter provides information about several key human rights cases in Kazakhstan.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of 

Opinion series publishes op-ed articles by contributors writing on a wide range of topics – Swiss issues or those that impact Switzerland. The selection of articles presents a diversity of opinions designed to enrich the debate on the issues discussed.

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