Regimes across the Eurasian land mass are using a regional grouping supposedly designed for security and economic cooperation to “reinforce” authoritarian rule and coordinate “repressive measures targeting civil society,” according to a new report.
Under the guise of fighting “terrorism, extremism and separatism,” the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has become a vehicle for undermining international standards of human rights and refugee law, says a report from the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). Rights violations across within SCO member states “indicate a dangerous trend,” notes the 42-page report, produced in cooperation with regional rights groups.
The Al-Qaeda attacks on “9/11 gave the SCO further justification to reinforce authoritarian security policies, leading to repressive measures targeting civil society as well as the perpetration of serious human rights violations,” the report notes:
More than ten years on, human rights defenders from SCO member states have documented numerous serious human rights violations resulting from inter-state cooperation and the national implementation of agreements under the SCO’s security and political framework relating to the fight against the “three evils” of terrorism, extremism and separatism. Basic rights such as the rights to privacy, freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, freedom from torture and the duty of non-refoulment, are increasingly being violated. Meanwhile, victims lack adequate access to effective remedies at the national level. In this context of impunity, victims’ access to international and regional human rights mechanisms and remedies takes on additional significance.
The SCO comprises the People’s Republic of China, the Russian Federation and four Central Asian Republics (Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan). Ostensibly formed to enhance regional security and economic cooperation, it also claims to provide a legal and political framework to combat “terrorism, extremism and separatism”.
SCO member states are mostly authoritarian regimes that “tend to justify the repression of religious, political and human rights activists, as well as political opposition members and the representatives of some national minorities on grounds of national security and stability,” the report notes:
SCO governments often accuse these individuals or groups of extremism, bringing politically-motivated charges against them. “Extremism” is an ill-defined concept and is not an internationally recognized criminal offence. Indeed, the SCO security framework is implemented through national legislation without a common precise definition of terrorism. This results in laws and regulations that are overly broad and pliable to abuses by state officials.
“Human rights NGOs from SCO Member States have highlighted that the SCO framework has enabled Member States to challenge many provisions of international human rights and refugee law,’ the FIDH report states.
“There is little human rights analysis of the consequences of SCO agreements in Member States. The fact that the SCO’s working languages are Chinese and Russian, with not much publicly available documentation in English, makes it difficult for many human rights NGOs to access direct information on its working structure and normative framework.”
This lack of transparency facilitates the general perception that the organization focuses merely on military and economic cooperation, with little or no direct relevance to human rights in SCO Member States. Few human rights organizations within those states study the SCO’s influence on human rights as a whole. Instead, they usually address individual instances of rights violations against deportees, those subject to extradition, or those accused of involvement with terrorist acts or prohibited organizations. In addition, the human rights situation in all SCO Member States is generally characterized by high levels of repression against human rights defenders. This makes it very difficult for them to collect data on state responsibility for human right violations.
The SCO has been described as “the most dangerous organization that the American people have never heard of,” an authoritarian international for Eurasia’s illiberal regimes, and “one of those international bodies whose proclaimed ideals conceal an often sordid reality.” Other observers have noted that Beijing is using the SCO to ensure that it gets “the thickest piece of cake given to the modern Chinese by the heavens,” granting $10 billion in loans to Central Asian states last year.
The SCO’s approach to counter-terrorism is modeled on China’s Three Evils doctrine for combating terrorism, extremism and separatism, even if, as one study notes, this has “too often acted as cover for suppression of ….legitimate opposition groups and the cutting-off of trans-regional ties between them.” The Beijing/SCO focus on territorial integrity, non-interference in internal affairs, and social stability “contributes to supporting repressive regimes at the expense of national, regional, and global human rights,” according to a recent whitepaper from Human Rights in China.
“The recent agreement in Beijing reflects the shared fear among SCO governments of the kind of popular uprisings still unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa, said Souhayr Belhassen, FIDH President. “The security doctrines of the SCO will add potency to the already expansive and unchecked state power that is often used and abused to criminalize dissent and human rights defenders”, she added.
FIDH and its member and partner organizations from SCO countries have made a number of recommendations to SCO member states. These include the following:
- Comply with obligations under international human rights law and international refugee law, and abide by the decisions of international human rights bodies.
- Develop and implement a SCO mechanism focused exclusively on human rights protection.
- Adopt transparent human rights principles and conduct regular assessments of the human rights consequences of the implementation of SCO principles and agreements by SCO member states.
- Abolish the death penalty.
- Involve civil society representatives, including human rights NGOs, in discussions and considerations regarding SCO member state cooperation.
- Invite the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism to conduct a country visit, and cooperate with him by implementing his recommendations, including those of his 2009 report.