Saipira Furstenberg and John Heathershaw offer reflections on their visit to the OSCE (HDIM) meeting in Warsaw, 2018.
On September 10, we visited Europe’s annual largest human rights and democracy conference, the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) in Warsaw. HDIM is a two-week session, bringing together 57 OSCE participating states, and nongovernmental representatives, international experts, and human rights activists for two weeks to review OSCE human rights compliance and progress. HDIM allows participating States and civil society organizations to assess one another’s implementation of OSCE human dimension commitments, identify challenges, and make recommendations for improvement.
One of the most notable features of the HDIM, and what makes it rare in the world of inter-governmental organizations, is the participation of non-governmental organizations on nominally equal terms. The HDMI platform allows NGO representatives to raise issues of concern directly with government representatives, both by speaking during the formal working sessions of the HDIM and by organizing side events that examine specific issues in detail.
During the working sessions, each party, from the United States of America to tiny Turkmen exile groups, each have 2.5 minutes to speak before being cut off by the chair. State parties face their exiled opponents across the table. Controversy is common and performance is paramount. Many parallel conversations happen with the policy debate of the US, EU and Holy See about the death penalty interpolated with the Kazakh government’s parochial struggle against its domestic critics. Such rancour is live-streamed over the web. The impression given is one of chaos, but research and advocacy opportunities abound both in the sessions and the corridors.
Together with Global Advocates Foundation, Freedom Now and Human Rights Watch, and Fair Trials, ExCAS took part in the side-event organised on human rights situation in Tajikistan, “Tajikistan 2018 – No Freedom Beyond This Point”. Over around five years, the situation of human rights abuses in Tajikistan has deteriorated with the targeting of the main opposition party IRPT inside and outside the country. The government further exerts pressure on human rights activists, civil society, journalists and on relatives of the political exiles, to stop their political activities and curtail human rights to freedom of speech and association. While there is no complete list of political prisoners in the country, according to Human Rights Watch, it is estimated that there are currently between 100 and 200 opposition members locked down in prisons. The government’s repressive campaign against the regime’s critics has extended transnationally with the use of diplomatic ties and issuing of Interpol Red Notices against members of the opposition groups. As our Central Asia Political Exiles Database demonstrates, the government cooperates with Russia, post-Soviet states and increasingly Turkey to seek extradition of the members of the Group 24 and IRPT.
Contrary to previous years, where the Tajik state declined to participate to the OSCE event, this year was marked by the active and, at times, aggressive presence of the Tajik delegation. The forum provided a unique platform for the opposition and the Tajik state delegation to meet face- to face. During the event, Saifullo Safarov, a highly ranked member of state Tajikistan delegation offered dialogue and negotiations to the Tajik opposition: “We are ready to start negotiations with Tajik opposition as we had done it before”, referring to a series of negotiations led to the Tajik Peace Accord signed by the government and opposition in 1997 in Moscow. According to IPRT party leader, Muhddin Kabiri, he had further received assurances from Saifullo Safarov about the release of dozens of political prisoners, although these have yet to be honoured.
But the violence of Tajik politics, where opponents of the state are routinely threatened and political prisoners sometimes tortured, was just beneath the surface. There were moments of peaceful talks but also a moment of violence when a member of the government punched and kicked members of the opposition party outside of the OSCE event venue. Prior to the event, there were already tensions in the air. Ahead of the event, the official Tajik news agency Khovar reprinted text criticizing the OSCE’s invitation to IRPT figures and saying it risked a shutdown of the OSCE office in Dushanbe (RFE, 2018Staged protests were also held in front of the OSCE offices in Tajikistan on September 7, to ban the participation of the IRPT opposition party.
On the side-lines, the event was further marked by the creation of National Alliance of Tajikistan composed of: the Forum for Free-Thinkers of Tajikistan, the Reform and Development Movement, the Central Asian Migrants Movement, and IRPT. Saifullo Safarov has previously argued that the exiled opposition offers a ‘serious threat’ to Tajikistan. In Warsaw, the government delegation looked weak in the face of a large presence of opponents. It sat down to debate with persons and a group (the IRPT) which it has previously declared to be terrorists. It is difficult to avoid the impression that it is scrambling to protect the reputation of the government in increasingly desperate ways such as continuing to blame the July 2018 terrorist attack claimed by Daesh/ISIL on the IRPT and Iran. However, the apparent strength of the opposition in Warsaw may be misleading. Exile politics is a lonely business and it is very hard to keep coalitions in place over the longer-term.
The OSCE HDIM event left us with mix feelings. Although the presence of the Tajik delegation offers a glimpse of hope, it did not address the erosion of human rights in Tajikistan, nor did it offer credible commitments to release political prisoners. Although in the past months, the Tajik government has showed signs of slowing down repression with the releases of political prisoners, as the journalist Khayrullo Mirsaidov and human rights lawyer Shukhrat Kudratov, as well as lifting travel bans on family member of political exile activists (cases Hamza and Fatima), such positive human rights incidents remain limited and scarce. There seems to be little hope for the re-emergence of political rights in Tajikistan under the present regime which has forced its peaceful opposition into exile.
 Human Rights Watch, 2018.Joint Letter to the EU Regarding the Human Rights Situation in Tajikistan. 23 July, 2018. [Online]. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/07/23/joint-letter-eu-regarding-human-rights-situation-tajikistan [Accessed: 26 October, 2018].
 Turkey detained two members of Group 24, Suhrobi Zafar and Nasim Sharipov, but did not extradite them due to the Constitutional Court of Turkey ruling that they may face torture in Tajikistan. Namunjon Sharipov from IRPT was extradited from Turkey to Tajikistan on the request of Tajik authorities.
 OSCE 2018. Side-event “Tajikistan Continues Severe Violations of Human Rights” By TAJIK CENTRE FOR HUMAN RIGHT, Vienna Date: 14.09.2018 Time: 18:15-19:45 Venue: Meeting Room 1, Sofitel Hotel, Warsaw. Available at: https://www.osce.org/odihr/398108?download=true Accessed 26 October, 2018.
 Eurasianet, 2018. Tajikistan: Is rumored amnesty for real or a bluff?. 11 September, 2018. [Onlline]. Available at: https://eurasianet.org/tajikistan-is-rumored-amnesty-for-real-or-a-bluff
 Radio Free Europe, 2018. Tajik Officials, Activists Scuffle At OSCE Meeting In Warsaw. 12 September 2018. [Online]. Available at:
https://www.rferl.org/a/tajik-officials-activists-scuffle-at-osce-meeting-in-warsaw/29486243.html [Accessed: 26 October, 2018]
 Asia-Plus 2018 . Protest action held outside OSCED Programme Office in Dushanbe. 7 September, 2018.[Online]. Available at: https://news.tj/en/news/tajikistan/incidents/20180907/protest-action-held-outside-osced-programme-office-in-dushanbe
ПАЁМ. NET. 2018. Декларация о создании Национального Альянса Таджикистана. 9 September, 2018. [Online]. Available at: http://payom.net/ru/декларация-о-создании-национального [Accessed: 26 September, 2018].