UN human rights experts* today called on the Kazakhstan authorities and security forces to halt their unrestrained use of force, including lethal force, against protesters and ensure that an independent and human-rights based investigations of State use of force against protesters is undertaken.
The experts said they were profoundly concerned that Kazakhstan’s President reportedly gave orders to security forces and army to “open fire with lethal force” against protesters he described as “bandits and terrorists”.
The Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, who carried out an official visit to Kazakhstan in May 2019, including to Aktau and Almaty, areas where the protests emerged, said that Kazakhstan’s overly broad use of the word “terrorism” in this context against protesters, civil society activists, human rights defenders, journalists and political parties appeared aimed at instilling fear and was deeply concerning. Her comments were endorsed by several other experts appointed by the Human Rights Council.
The experts cautioned against the inaccurate, rhetorical and overly broad use of the term, noting such use was inconsistent with international law and undermined human rights for all in Kazakhstan. Misuse of the word “terrorism” undermines the security of all and cheapens this term which has a specific meaning in international law.
The experts highlighted that such “terrorism” language should not be used to silence those who do not share the Government’s opinion, who are protesting about social and economic conditions, and expressing political views. Acts of violence should be appropriately dealt with under Kazakhstan’s comprehensive criminal code which is adequately equipped to address these acts. The government must protect the legitimate exercise of fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression, and peaceful assembly and association, they said.
“The expansive branding of protesters as terrorists is a way to use Kazakhstan’s overly broad terrorism legislation that allows for the use of force, including a ‘shoot to kill’ policy, against any individual determined to be a ‘terrorist’,” the experts said.
“Such wholesale barriers to freedom of expression and assembly premised on terrorism are absolutely contrary to the strict provisions under international human rights law on the right to life.”
The experts recalled that the use of lethal force must be used solely in self-defence and when all other means have been exhausted, including non-lethal force. They stressed that these principles were also applicable to foreign forces operating on the territory of Kazakhstan with its consent.
“This shows how misguided counter-terrorism measures can be abused by a security sector that is unaccountable under the law for actions seemingly justified by countering terrorism,” the experts added.
In line with a report following her official visit to Kazakhstan in 2019, Ní Aoláin stressed the need for an independent, impartial, effective and public investigation to determine the legality of the use of force and to ensure accountability when lethal force was used by security services, law enforcement or the military. Any domestic investigation must consider Kazakhstan’s international human rights obligations.
The experts called on the authorities to ensure the well-being and fair treatment according to international law of the thousands of individuals detained since the protests began on 2 January, stressing that detention was not permitted by international law for the peaceful exercise of fundamental freedoms.
The experts recalled the key role played by information and communication technology, particularly in times of crises and amidst a global pandemic, and urged no further resort to internet shutdowns, noting that blanket measures such as complete shutdowns to silence free press were often arbitrary and rarely complied with principles of legality, proportionality and necessity.
The experts reminded Kazakhstan of the positive momentum it had made in moving towards more open and accountable government in recent years, and urged restraint and a recommitment to human rights and the rule of law.
“Human rights backsliding is a loss for all citizens of Kazakhstan, and for the Government’s global standing and rule of law and human rights-based solutions are the way forward at this time,” the experts said.