The European Parliament faces a litmus test of its commitment to a principled EU policy on human rights. At issue is whether it will support upgraded relations with Turkmenistan, ruled by one of the most repressive governments in the world, without requiring any rights improvements in exchange.
The test will be an upcoming vote – possibly as soon as November – on a partnership and co-operation agreement (PCA) with Turkmenistan. The parliament should reject such an obviously misguided move, and send a clear message that enhanced relations with the European Union must go hand in hand with concrete improvements in human rights.
This is a message the European External Action Service (EEAS), the European Commission, and member states – eager to pursue closer relations with gas-rich Turkmenistan – have consistently failed to send. The EU's long-standing quest to upgrade relations with Turkmenistan has paid scant attention to human rights, even though Turkmenistan's atrocious rights record could not be more at odds with the PCA's human-rights clause. The clause commits both parties to respect human rights, and provides the possibility of suspension should either violate this principle.
If taken seriously, this clause would mean that, in the absence of improvements by Turkmenistan, the EU would have to initiate proceedings to suspend the agreement as soon as it was concluded. By ignoring this reality and failing to use the lead-up process to upgraded relations to secure even the most minimal progress in rights, the EEAS, the Commission, and member states have squandered precious time and leverage.
The Parliament now has a crucial opportunity to set things right. To do so, it needs to look no further than its own reform demands, as formulated in 2008 and re-affirmed in 2010 – basic steps such as releasing political prisoners, lifting travel bans on activists and their relatives, and allowing independent human-rights monitors into the country, which it set as prerequisites for closer relations with Turkmenistan.
To date, none of the Parliament's benchmarks have been met. Hundreds – possibly thousands – of political prisoners languish in Turkmenistan's prisons, including Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev, who worked with human-rights organisations before their imprisonment in 2006, and Gulgeldy Annaniazov, a political dissident whose relatives have had no information about him since his imprisonment in 2008.
The government interferes with residents' right to leave and return to Turkmenistan, through an informal, arbitrary system of travel bans on activists, their families, and relatives of exiled dissidents. The country remains utterly closed to human-rights scrutiny due to the government's long-standing denial of access for independent human-rights monitors, including no fewer than ten UN rapporteurs, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and non-governmental organisations.
The Parliament should make its consent to the PCA contingent on measurable progress in these key areas of concern, and insist on a serious effort by the EEAS, the Commission, and member states to press for such progress. Of course, there is much more than human rights to the EU's relationship with Turkmenistan. But strategic interests such as energy security are no justification for overlooking human rights, and articulating concrete expectations for rights reform should not be seen as an impediment to good relations.
For the Parliament to vote in favour of a PCA with Turkmenistan in the current circumstances would mean succumbing to the same political expediency that has led the EU to ignore human-rights abuses in its relationship with this country for so long. The Parliament should make a clean break from this sorry record, and ensure an EU policy true to the core values and principles that underpin its relations with third countries.
Hanging in the balance are the many victims of Turkmen government repression, including Amanklychev, Khajiev and Annaniazov, who should be able to count on the EU's unwavering support for their rights and freedoms.
Veronika Szente Goldston is the Europe and central Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.