29th Jun 2022

EU keen to bring international criminal court to Central Asia

The EU will push Central Asian states to sign up to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, despite internal division on whether human rights should be pushed down the list of priorities as Brussels tries to build new relations with the authoritarian, gas-rich countries.

"The EU and its member states are determined to share, with the Central Asian states their experience in the adoption of necessary legal adjustments required to accede to the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court," the latest version of the EU's policy paper - obtained by EUobserver - says.

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The 23 May text, entitled "The EU and Central Asia: Strategy for a New Partnership" makes subtle changes to an original German EU presidency draft from April. The new version has been approved by senior diplomats in the Political and Security Committee and is set to be rubber-stamped at the 21 June EU summit.

Other changes to the earlier German draft include: a bigger stress on bilateral relations with each of the five Central Asia countries instead of a regional approach, and greater attention to using Central Asia to combat problems in neighbouring states, such as small arms sales to Afghanistan.

"Bilateral cooperation will be of specific importance," the new text adds, addressing tensions between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, who both see themselves as regional leaders. "The EU will give greater support to the fight against...illegal trade of weapons from and to Afghanistan."

The May draft puts in new hydro-power and electricity network priorities in the energy section. "Hydro-power promotion and distribution are crucial to promoting stability and prosperity," it states. The EU will "focus on" supporting "electricity transportation networks inside the region and towards Europe."

The May text also clips the wings of the EU special envoy to Central Asia, Pierre Morel, adding that "the [European] commission as well as member states" will implement the policy along with the French diplomat, who must behave "without prejudice to community competence" in his future activities.

The caveat on Mr Morel was added at the request of the commission, with some EU officials annoyed that the envoy, in his frequent trips to the region, presents himself as "the main EU player," even though it is the commission which will be responsible for managing the nitty gritty of the new policy's €750 million budget.

ICC unrealistic?

The addition of the ICC clause is being read in different ways by analysts and EU diplomats. On one hand, it can be seen as a continuation of the stronger human rights push of EU countries such as the UK, the Netherlands and Sweden. The human rights camp in May curbed German plans to lift diplomatic sanctions on Uzbekistan.

On the other hand, some EU officials see the ICC move as window dressing to appease NGO criticism and let the EU get on with the task of brokering new gas pipelines to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. If the ICC move went ahead, leagues of Central Asian officials could stand trial for systematic torture and extra-judicial killings.

"We can say we want the ICC. But it doesn't mean we'll get it. The ICC idea looks nice in Europe," one EU official said. A Human Rights Watch analyst laughed out loud upon seeing the proposal. "I'm sure it will be warmly welcomed [in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan]," she said, speaking ironically.

Broadly speaking, Germany, Mr Morel and some senior officials in the European Commission believe that too strong an emphasis on human rights could derail fragile relations, in the context of Russian and Chinese energy overtures to the region, which come with no strings attached.

Uzbekistan recently released two prisoners - Umida Niazova and Gulbahor Turaeva - on probation and agreed to a wishy-washy "human rights dialogue." But it hit back at the May sanctions decision, calling it "counter-productive," and has threatened to pull out of the next human rights talks, tabled for November, just before the next sanctions review.

Winds of change

Turkmenistan has also shown more openness to western ideas since president Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov took over from the late Saparmurat Niyazov in February, opening internet cafes and easing access to basic education. But the country - generally known as one of the most repressive in the world - has a long way to go in reform terms.

The Times of Central Asia reports - in as yet unconfirmed news - that on 11 June, Mr Morel in Ashgabat invited president Berdymukhammedov to visit Brussels. Meanwhile, external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner has been lobbying MEPs to lift their blockade on draft trade and political treaties with the country.

Even if the commission can persuade British and Dutch MEPs to back down, the so-called "ITA" and "PCA" agreements will have to be ratified by all 27 EU states. "What you will probably see is all the pro-human rights countries, those who can afford it because they have their own gas [like the UK and the Netherlands], come forward with objections," an EU official said.

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