U.N. Chief Urges Turkmenistan to Focus on Rights

Reuters/April 2, 2010

Ashgabat - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Turkmenistan on Friday to focus more on its human rights obligations as he embarked on his first tour of former Soviet Central Asia.

A vast Muslim region run by authoritarian leaders, Central Asia has gained global significance because of its vast energy reserves as well as proximity to Afghanistan, where NATO-led troops are battling an Islamist insurgency.

Advocacy groups have urged the U.N. chief to press rights questions in the ethnically divided region where governments tolerate little dissent and tend to jail political opponents.

Speaking in Turkmenistan -- the most isolated of the five "stans" of Central Asia -- Ban said the United Nations wanted to engage more with the Caspian Sea gas producer over human rights.

"I emphasised the U.N.'s readiness to engage with the government on human rights concerns," he said, speaking alongside Turkmen President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

"I called on the government to fulfil all obligations under international human rights law and the many treaties to which it is a signatory."

Turkmenistan, Central Asia's biggest natural gas producer, is slowly emerging from the shadow of its autocratic leader Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in 2006 after ruling the country for 21 years through a mixture of personality cult and repression.

Berdymukhamedov, the nation's new and more reformist leader, has been chipping away at Niyazov's personality cult but rights groups say his reforms have been largely cosmetic.

Criticism of the state remains taboo in Turkmenistan and there are no registered opposition parties. Most politicians critical of the government have left the country.

Central Asia has been increasingly frustrated by growing poverty and state intolerance of dissent. Radical Islam has also been on the rise in the traditionally secular region.

Thousands of people have been jailed across Central Asia on terrorist charges. The trend has drawn criticism from rights groups, who say governments are using the threat as an excuse to crack down on broader political dissent.

"Still in transition"

The United Nations has billed Ban's week-long trip to Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan as a chance to discuss regional cooperation, nuclear non-proliferation, climate change and development.

Berdymukhamedov, for his part, called on the United Nations to sponsor a long-term reconstruction programme in Afghanistan to focus on restoring transport, communications, industry, power supply and the building of schools and hospitals.

In his public remarks, he made no direct reference to the human rights situation in Turkmenistan, the issue that has focussed the attention of Western advocacy groups on Ban's trip.

In a letter to the U.N. chief last month, New York-based Human Rights Watch said there had "never been a more important time for you to ... (engage) governments in the region on human rights concerns."

At a meeting with Berdymukhamedov attended by reporters, Ban said cautiously that Central Asian countries were "still in transition to fuller democracy." But U.N. officials said he had raised the subject at greater length in a closed meeting with the Turkmen president.

After the talks, Ban visited a gold-domed, white marble mausoleum built for Niyazov on the outskirts of the capital Ashgabat and laid a wreath there.

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