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Adventures in Geneva-Land

After President Saparmyrat Niyazov died in December 2006, rumors began to circulate in Turkmenistan about the supposed $6 billion that he had socked away in a Swiss bank account.  A few weeks ago in Geneva, I learned that Zurich, the seat of Switzerland’s banking industry, was having such a boom year that it was providing its citizens with an anti-tax.  This coming financial year, Zurich’s residents wouldn’t be paying the state a percentage of their salaries: they would be receiving a bonus from the regional government.    These two stories probably aren’t directly related.  I still can’t help but thinking of them together.

I spent November 2011 lobbying several of the so-called United Nations “Special Procedures” for increased attention on Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.  The organization that was employing me at the time, the CIVICUS World Alliance for Citizen Participation, had received a grant from the Open Society Institute to increase pressure on the governments of these two countries by pushing for visits from the UN Special Procedures’ representatives (some of the latter are called “Special Rapporteurs” which is a bit more French and impressive sounding than the “Working Group” title given to many others).  Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are known at the UN, and especially amongst those working with the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (ON OHCHR), as states little interested in playing nice.  They frequently refuse to answer communications from the UN Special Procedures, deny their representatives the right to visit, and when they do comment, simply offer blanket denials.  Yet every time a denial or refusal was made, it was generally agreed upon in Geneva that these countries “looked bad.”  It was my job to make these two countries look bad by pushing for the UN Special Procedures to keep asking for visits or further information, even when everyone knew in advance that little of value was to come of this.

Functionally, this meant putting together long reports on the human rights situation in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and attempting to get meetings at the last minute with the two Working Groups sitting during November 2011–-the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances.  Although I managed to track down various members of the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances and more or less shove the reports that I had written into their staff members’ hands in the hallways of the UN building in Geneva, I never did convince them to allow me present my reports in person.  A well-timed email to the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, however, did give a few colleagues and me an hour and a half in front of that Special Procedure.

When I say “put together long reports on human rights,” I generally mean collating data held by human rights workers in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, or those exiles in Europe who are presumably in contact with human rights workers in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.  This is a messier and more complicated picture than one might presume.  There are very few obviously legitimate or obviously functional human rights organizations operating in either country (Human Rights Watch, the last major Western organization of this type, was more or less forced to close its office in Tashkent earlier this year.  It never had one in Ashgabat).  Those individuals who do collect information about human rights abuses in both countries are prone to accusing one another of collaborating with the government, or taking bribes, or simply spreading lies.  Data can be extremely difficult to access: I found that many requests for additional information beyond simple descriptions of one or another individual’s detention would result in reports that a source had “gone silent,” or that the family of a detained person had asked that “no further action were taken.”  Reprisals are a basic fact of life for anyone reporting human rights abuses in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and there is very good reason to consider not talking to outsiders, even presumably objective outsiders such as the UN Special Procedures. 

Thus, when I talk about spending November 2011 at the UN I mostly mean spending November 2011 in a small office across the street from the UN’s Palais des Nations, a sprawling palace once owned, I was told, by a local aristocrat, and then the city of Geneva, prior to its donation to the UN at some point in 20th century.  I tapped away at my reports and spoke on Skype with exiled figures in the Uzbek and Turkmen human rights communities.   Towards the end of November I did give an extended presentation to the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, where my colleagues and I tried to provide something of a general picture of the ways that arbitrary arrest and detention have been used in both countries as tool of political pressure and repression.   I think we did a pretty decent job of making the governments of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan look bad. 

Geneva in November, or at least November 2011, was a gray place.  The sun rose late, and it was overcast nearly every day.   I rode the tram up from my sort of dorm-for-foreign-students to the Palais des Nations each morning, trying to find a local radio station that would play at least one pop song for every six minutes of French talk-show giggling.  My head remained in a swirl of unpleasant details, the result of reading, and hearing, and discussing for a month straight the ways people had been subjected to physical violence in the countries I was supposed to making look bad, diplomatically speaking.  These details are not worth repeating here, but they took up enough space in my head that I stopped seeing a lot of Geneva from the tram windows.

I did manage to get outside of Geneva once in November: I took a day trip to visit family friends in Lausanne.  This time I tried to keep my eyes open more, and to take a day off from the global mission of throwing paint on the Turkmen and Uzbek leaders’ fur coats.  I watched the Swiss hillsides phase by from my seat on what was probably one of the most comfortable and efficient trains I’ve ever been on (though, it, like everything else in Switzerland, cost enough to justify this), and saw a great number of chalets, Swiss vacation homes, and the occasional small castle.  I assume the latter were also someone’s vacation homes.  The shore of Lake Leman, along which the Geneva-Lausanne train line runs, is quite lovely.  As we pulled into Lausanne, I also noticed the array of tobacco companies’ European headquarters lining the water.

Running through the hallways of the UN’s Palais des Nations can be educational in many ways.  I would never have guessed that there was a second-hand clothing store tucked away in a corner, but this did seem to be there.  After a month of struggling to put Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan on the docket–-on the international community’s opinion chopping block, perhaps–-I came to wonder whether all of this really was as clean-cut as I had been led to believe.   Making Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan “look bad” while wandering the squeaky-clean streets and excessively efficient trains of Switzerland made the contrast just a little too close to the surface, just a little too obvious.   At one point I took an afternoon off from my furious typing to listen in on a session of the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, where Turkmenistan was up for its first review ever after joining this Convention in 1996.  Over the course of an afternoon, attention was given to a great variety of questions and areas of interest in the Turkmen economy–-the purview of the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights is quite vast.   Out of all the possible issues to discuss–-Turkmenistan’s educational policies or textbooks, the country’s healthcare system and treatment of aids patients, the fate of minorities or dual-citizenship holders in the country–-the Committee chose to narrow its focus in on two questions, to which it returned on numerous occasions.  First, the Turkmen delegation was told, more than once, the fact that free school lunch in not provided to 100% of all Turkmen elementary school students is a travesty.  And two, as one Committee member refused to let an hour go by without mentioning, Turkmen familial practices were backward and promoted stereotypical gender roles–-men needed to be more involved in child-raising.

I’m sure that in some sort of media report (if there was any media report on this Committee session) Turkmenistan came out looking “bad.”  No free school lunches, after all, is a black eye of sorts.   Although, to be fair, I attended a low-income elementary school in my own youth, a place where the majority of students were either provided “free” or “subsidized” lunch, but not a place where lunch was free for all, nor one where a student going hungry was unheard of.  In Turkmenistan, I taught at a rural school that was by all means poverty-stricken, and yet where my students always had enough small change to buy lunch or even, once, to donate to a spectacle for the disabled children who lived in isolation outside of town.  I have no idea what school lunches are like in Switzerland, but it felt equally unacceptable there as it would have for America to criticize Turkmenistan for its school lunch policies or the way in which its people chose to raise their children. 

This is not to say that terrible things don’t happen in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, human rights abuses that are worth criticizing, and commenting on, and bringing to light.  They do.  I left Geneva, easily and smoothly: I took a bus to the airport, sat down on my plane, and watched the Swiss Alps fade behind me.  There are thousands who are unable to leave from both of these countries, people locked in, and up, and tortured, and treated both cruelly and inhumanly.   In the end, however, making their governments “look bad,” I felt, wasn’t really all that effective.   When I asked a staff member of one of the Special Procedures towards the end of my stay in Geneva what reason he would give to a human rights defender considering whether or not to pass information on to the UN in favor of doing so, he sort of shrugged.  “In the long run,” he suggested, “this can lead to increased attention paid to a country’s bad actions.”  That’s a hard sell to those who are facing physical harm or worse.   After a month of acting as a conduit along the chain to diplomatic black eyes, I don’t think I’m buying it either.  - Isaac Scarborough, Indiana University