Good afternoon (kayirly kun). Thank you for coming. I would also like to thank the Government very much for their invitation and their warm welcome. This has been a whirlwind visit. It just lasted a day-and-a-half, and in that time we have had some fruitful – and very important – conversations with a wide range of people in Kazakhstan, including senior Government officials, the chair of the Constitutional Court, the Ombudsperson, diplomats, representatives of civil society and human rights defenders, as well as a gathering of students in a university.
Since gaining independence in 1991, Kazakhstan has flourished in many ways. You only need to look out of the window here in the capital of Astana. Just last month, the United Nations marked the 30th anniversary of its presence in the country. Coincidentally, this year we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and Plan of Action that led to the founding of the UN Human Rights Office.
Kazakhstan is a member of the UN Human Rights Council, and I hope that this, alongside their close engagement with other human rights mechanisms, will help the Government steer through the ongoing reform process.
This afternoon, President Tokayev and I had a constructive conversation about the country’s ongoing reform process, and I value his continued commitment to ensure the centrality of human rights as this process moves forward. In the years ahead, as the people of Kazakhstan look to build their future, it is essential that their fundamental rights are fully taken into account – at an individual level but also when it comes to strengthening governance institutions, ensuring sustainable economic growth, and addressing environmental issues.
I welcome the Presidential Reforms and Constitutional Amendments, including the establishment of the Constitutional Court, the strengthening of the Ombudspersons’ Office, and the country’s full abolition of the death penalty. I also welcome that Kazakhstan organised the return and reintegration of over 700 women and children from conflict zones, in particular Syria and Iraq. Following the significant progress Kazakhstan made to reduce statelessness, I hope accession to the two UN Statelessness instruments will follow.
As in many situations around the world, however, old habits die hard. Kazakhstan inherited a complex history, but clearly there is an appetite for reform and modernisation. And I appreciate it takes time to enact change. Today, I heard encouraging words on a number of issues in my meetings with the President, the Acting Foreign Minister and the Chair of the Constitutional Court. It is vital that the pledges to act on human rights are translated into action on the ground.
The tragic events of January 2022, with over 230 people dying during this chaotic period, came up regularly during my conversations with civil society, the Government and the international community. I heard directly from victims about their harrowing accounts of being tortured. Their stories are a stark reminder that this must end.
I welcome the zero-tolerance policy of the President to torture, and it is clear that all hands need to be on deck to eradicate this scourge and to prevent it from recurring. Justice, reparations and truth must be delivered to all of the victims of the January events. I have recommended a comprehensive “after action” review into the events as part of an ongoing trust-building process. As in so many situations around the world, strengthening the social contract within a society and between the institutions of the State and the people is crucial to the future of the country.
Yesterday, I heard about the societal stigma and discrimination — and sometimes hate — faced by people from the LGBTIQ+ community. One person, who is a role model for queer men and women, shared that on three occasions over the course of a year — in three different cities where she was providing human rights training — a mob of men beat and forcefully took her to the police. Despite this traumatic experience, she vowed to carry on giving human rights training, including two more this year. She said to me: “I am brave. I am desperate. But I will continue.” I salute the courage and determination of people like her.
Violence against women remains a persistent problem that needs to be addressed head on. The public prosecution of domestic violence, in particular, is an important signal, and I hope this will be put into law soon.
In terms of broadening civic space, freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of expression, media freedoms and the safety and protection of journalists – these are all areas that need more work. International human rights standards are critical guides for the way forward.
Earlier today, I met and engaged with this country’s future generations at Kazakh State Law University. I recounted that the people of Kazakhstan have confronted many human rights challenges in the modern era. There is the difficult legacy of the Soviet past. And then there are looming challenges of climate change and environmental damage. These are issues that – rightly – preoccupy the young generation very much. In Kazakhstan, they are compounded by the legacy of nuclear testing and by geographic and environmental fragility.
The triple-planetary crisis is a human rights crisis. And it is already creating damage to the rights of millions of people in Kazakhstan and around the world, and that will grow. Human rights laws are the compass that needs to guide the important decisions that need to be made, nationally and globally, to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights – and this year we are commemorating its 75th anniversary — distils for us the experience of preceding generations. It is also our roadmap. This miraculous document mapped the steps to build freer and more equal societies.
Over the past 75 years, the Declaration has guided tremendous progress in countries across the world. During the course of my visit, I expressed my hope with leaders and students alike, to ensure that the Declaration is not just reflecting the past but also guiding us in the present and preparing us for the future.
Thank you (kop rakhmet).