Ireland is now the chair-in-office at OSCE, and I imagine in some quarters, there is a certain sigh of relief, after the chairmanship of two post-Soviet nations. First, there was the awful chair of Kazakhstan, which did nothing to improve human rights in that Central Asian country. Then there was the better, but still problematic chair of Lithuania, which made some strong efforts on press freedom in particular, but left the unfortunate legacy of not only a president who hoped Lukashenka would win the elections in 2010 to maintain stability, but a bank that complied with the outrageous request of Lukashenka's henchmen and abetted the unlawful prosecution of a leading human rights defender, Ales Bialetski.
Irish Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Eamon Gilmore has already presented what his country expects to do during their term in 2012.
First, there's "the inclusive approach in tackling modern security challenges." I'm really not schooled enough in OSCE-speak or EU-speak to understand what this really means -- and I hope it doesn't mean caving to things like Russia's demand for a new negotiated OSCE charter or a brand-new security architecture or over-arching concept for OSCE that doesn't include what Andrei Sakharov called the "indissoluble link" among peace, progress, and human rights.
Then, there's this, which all sounds fine:
Emphasizing that “the continuing threat to fundamental freedoms and human rights in a number of OSCE participating States is a cause of real concern,” Deputy Prime Minister Gilmore said that the full implementation of OSCE human dimension commitments by OSCE participating States is a top priority. A specific area of focus during the Irish Chairmanship will be the importance of protecting freedom of expression in the digital age, and working with civil society organizations and business to safeguard these freedoms online.
The media focus picks up from the best work of Lithuania during its tenure on giving a high profile to the issues of protection of journalists and defense of free speech online. I do hope this doesn't involve sliding off into issues of the copyleftist's agenda to undermine commerce and intellectual property rights online, through opposition to anti-piracy legislation or promotion of baggy notions of "net neutrality" and all the rest of it. These are distractions from the real core set of issues for online life in the OSCE countries that most violate basic free speech norms.
Then the Irish Foreign Minister had this to say:
A further priority for Ireland will be to seek ways to make progress towards lasting settlements of protracted conflicts in the OSCE area. Deputy Prime Minister Gilmore welcomed the resumption of the official 5+2 talks in the Transdniestrian settlement process, and offered his full support for the Minsk Group Co-Chairs to address the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and for the Geneva Discussions dealing with the August 2008 conflict in Georgia.
“We in Ireland know all too well the devastating cost of conflict. Through negotiation, compromise and the dedication and imagination of the two Governments involved, and leaders on both sides of the divide, a lasting settlement was achieved in relation to Northern Ireland.”
I think it's wonderful that Ireland's truly valuable and hard-won experience in conflict and its resolution will be brought to bear on the protracted "frozen conflicts" of OSCE. But countries large and small, rich and powerful or poor and weak, have come and gone in OSCE in the chair or as neighbours, and they all failed to solve these long-standing conflicts. I think it's safe to say that Ireland, even with its very best efforts, is not going to resolve them, either, and it won't be its fault.
These conflicts -- all of them -- at a very basic level have to do with the central problem of Russian aggression and imperialism. That is, sure, they're complex and they involve blame on both parties in the conflict and they have been coiled and convoluted and more about themselves at times than about the Kremlin. But there is no question that if the Kremlin changed, if Russia changed, then these conflicts would change dramatically, too.
I'm sure Ireland will give its best shot to these conflicts, but mindful of the very experience that the Foreign Ministry cited, I want to suggest another important task for Ireland: taking on Kazakhstan.
Here's the thing. The US, with all its power and might, can't seem to take on Kazakhstan. Remember this awful Congressional hearing?
Remember when, on the eve of its chairmanship, Kazakhstan said this, and nobody challenged it? (It sure sounds chilling now):
Just recently, on the 29th of January , in his state of the nation speech, President Nazarbayev launched a massive program of legal reforms, which is aimed at bringing Kazakhstan's judiciary closer to international standards. This year the Parliament will adopt a law that stipulates total public and legislative control over the activities of the law enforcement. This signifies our ongoing work to further strengthen the protection of rights and liberties of our citizens.
Maybe too many Kazakhs have bought out too many US congressmen, journalists, think-tanks, etc., sometimes for a song. Maybe the US is just in too deep with Kazakhstan because it needs oil, and because 100 percent of the traffic for the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) ferrying supplies to the war in Afghanistan goes through Kazakhstan now. Maybe it's because China is buying up a lot of Kazakhstan in the form of shares in enterprises, and the US is terribly in debt to China.
Russia isn't going to take on Kazakhstan, either, despite its large fellow Russian population there -- or because of it -- and due to Moscow's aspirations for the Eurasian Union and Customs Union that Kazakhstan and Belarus have already joined with Russia. Russia doesn't take on its allies, anyway, but is highly selective or even tendentious in its application of human rights-related intervention.
Ireland really then does have a role to play now vis-a-vis Kazakhstan, in starting to undo some of the harm that OSCE and its betters did in enabling Astana to become the chair. There's no question in my mind that the impunity that Nazarbayev gained by being handed that extraordinary gift -- and the summit as well -- are part of the circumstances that made it possible to shoot workers dead in Zhanaozen.
As far as I know, Ireland doesn't have the problems of the US and some other European countries where Kazakh lobbyists and business people and former and present officials go around buying some people and bullying others, sometimes with lawsuits. So Ireland should definitely take up the case of Zhanaozen, and invoke the chair's prerogative for talks, and the Moscow mechanism, and any other OSCE thing, to demand a full, credible and impartial investigation of these horrible events -- and prosecution of those at the highest levels responsible.
As I've noted, Nazarbayev has been very clever in pretending to invite the UN in to investigate -- but not really. Headlines talked about an open invitation, but it really was only under consideration by the Foreign Ministry. Journalists and human rights investigators have been blocked from the area. We still don't have all the information from these events, and the labour unrest that stretches back over the last year. While authorities give an official death toll o f 16, there are Kazakh civil society activists continuing to give the higher number of 46, as yet without a list of names, and possibly even more (eyewitness reports compiled by Elena Kostyuchenko of Russia's Novaya Gazeta gave a figure of 67 in December, which has not been confirmed).
What matters is not a numbers game, but an investigation. And that takes more than NGOs, it takes states.
The experience of Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland, where troops shot dead 26 people, affecting the course of events dramatically for decades afterward, has some similarities (although important differences) to the events in Zhanaozen.
There is no question that when government troops fire on unarmed demonstrators, the break in trust with the government, already absent when people are desperate enough to demonstrate, fuels further violence on both sides and is difficult to end.
In the case of Bloody Sunday, an important role was played by American lawyer Sam Dash, who performed an investigation for the International League for Human Rights at the time of the events. He obtained independent forensic evidence that showed that some people were shot as they crawled away from the scene and documented crucial victims' and eyewitness reports; he produced a report titled "Justice Denied", challenging Lord Widgery's report of the era. Years later, the British government under Prime Minister Tony Blair opened a Bloody Sunday Tribunal under Lord Saville, and struggled to cope with the testimony and the evidence (helped by Prof. Dash's report) -- and are still coping (the report was published in 2010).
All of these efforts point to the importance of validating the victims' narrative; documenting and publishing the reality of what happened; coming to grips with the need for acknowledgement of guilt and apology.
In an environment where figures like Lord Fraser, chairman of the British Kazakh Society and a member of the House of Lords, are contemplating "How Kazakhstan Can Continue Its Success Story" and minimizing the tragedy of Zhanaozen, the willingness of this particular chair-in-office to keep publicly asking about investigations and accountability for Zhanaozen will be crucial. It could be among Ireland's greatest contributions to OSCE and to the people of Kazakhstan.