By Yena Seo
Max Kampelman Fellow
Governments of OSCE participating States commit to upholding human rights in all circumstances, including in the fight against violent extremism. However, according to the U.S. Department of State’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2017, issued in September 2018, several OSCE countries are failing to fulfill these obligations.
The reports suggest that counterterrorism efforts undertaken by Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan are inconsistent with the specific commitments these nations made under the 2012 OSCE Consolidated Framework for the Fight Against Terrorism, as well as with their broader commitments to human rights outlined in the Helsinki Final Act.
Under the 2012 framework, participating States agreed to promote a comprehensive approach to security to ensure that efforts to counter terrorism are conducted on the basis of rule of law and respect human rights. The framework also rejects the identification of terrorism with a specific nationality or religion and seeks to promote cooperation between national authorities, the private sector, civil society, and the media.
At the 2016 OSCE Counter-Terrorism Conference, participating States acknowledged that impunity for human rights violations can contribute to radicalization and violent extremism. Governments that attempt to fight terrorism by undermining human rights can instead simultaneously undermine the security they seek to promote. The U.S. Mission to the OSCE also emphasizes that counterterrorism strategies are most successful when government and civil society leaders work together to address violent extremism.
According to the State Department reports, nations where counterterrorism practices routinely undermine OSCE commitments to human rights include:
In 2017, the Government of Azerbaijani “continued to cite ‘countering violent extremism’ as a justification for incarcerating members of the secular and religious political opposition, whom it alleges are ‘religious extremists.’” According to the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2017, the incarceration of political opponents by the Azerbaijani authorities “raised concerns about authorities’ abuse of the judicial system to punish dissent.”
The Government of Kazakhstan increased restrictions on religious freedom for minority groups and its Muslim-majority population as part of its approach to addressing homegrown terrorism. In one case, authorities sentenced a man to six years in prison for the sole charge of having Arabic-language songs praising Allah on his cell phone. The Government of Kazakhstan has taken a “law enforcement-first” approach to extremism and radicalization following two domestic terrorist attacks in 2016, which has resulted in violating religious freedoms in the name of preventing terrorism.
Russia uses its ongoing construction of a counterterrorism legal framework to prosecute peaceful individuals and organizations within its borders. Those targeted by Russia’s “anti-extremism” laws include members of the political opposition, independent media, and certain religious organizations.
A Helsinki Commission report on human rights and democracy in Russia described the “Yarovaya package,” amendments introduced in 2016 nominally intended as counterterrorism measures, which have been used against certain religious organizations and opponents of the Russian government’s actions in Ukraine. A 2017 Helsinki Commission briefing also discussed the Russian Supreme Court’s ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses as an “extremist organization.” During a 2017 Helsinki Commission hearing on democracy and human rights abuses in Russia, a representative of Human Rights Watch noted that individuals in Russia are targeted with arbitrary cases of extremism for sharing or posting criticism of the government on the Internet.
Additionally, the Government of Russia government refused to cooperate on countering violent extremism (CVE) initiatives with independent non-governmental organizations and civil society. The government instead chose to address counterterrorism through agencies or organizations controlled by the state.
Tajikistan’s Law on Combating Terrorism was used in 2017 by the government to suppress independent voices, including journalists, political opposition figures, and representatives of religious groups. The Tajik government has restricted some forms of political and religious expression to counter what it has deemed “extremism.”
The State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2017 also describes how the Government of Tajikistan requires registration of religious associations, but has prevented members of minority religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, from registering their organizations to practice legally in the country. The government also imprisoned a Protestant pastor for “extremism” and possessing “unauthorized” religious literature.
A 2017 Helsinki Commission briefing noted that more than a hundred people in Tajikistan were detained for membership in banned religious groups, and a number of individuals were subjected to long-term imprisonment for “extremist views.” In 2016, the U.S. Department of State designated Tajikistan as a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.
The Government of Turkey has used its prosecution of what it refers to as the “Fethullah Terrorism Organization” (“FETO”) to justify widescale purges and mass detentions of military, security, and civil servants throughout the country. As of November 2017, the Turkish government had dismissed approximately 150,000 civil servants from public service for alleged links to FETO or terrorism. These charges were often made despite minimal evidence and due process.
In 2016 speech a given on the floor of the House of Representatives, then-Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) condemned the Turkish Government’s “assault on the human rights of the Turkish people,” noting that press outlets were charged with “supporting terrorism” for unflattering reporting about Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. According to , dozens of journalists were prosecuted by the government for “propaganda for a terrorist organization” or “publishing terrorist organization’s statement.” The Helsinki Commission held a 2017 briefing detailing the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Turkish government in the name of countering terrorism and extremism.
Though Uzbekistan has recently made progress toward fulfilling its commitments to religious freedom, Uzbek law bans several religious groups as “extremist,” requires religious groups to register with the government, and declares that religious activities of unregistered groups are illegal. In 2017, all minority religious groups that attempted to register a new house of worship were denied.
The State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2017 claims that prisoners held on religious extremism charges are unable to practice their religion, and members of religious groups whose registration applications were denied by the government are legally unable to practice their religious beliefs. The State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2017 also alleges that torture and impunity for torturers continued regarding members of minority religious groups, including Muslims, Protestants, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Reported methods of torture and abuse included beatings, denial of food and use of toilet, and tying of hands.
Since the early 2000s, the Helsinki Commission has followed efforts to counter violent extremism in the OSCE region. In December 2018, a commission briefing reviewed counter-terrorism policies of several OSCE participating States to counter terrorism and violent extremism. Participants also discussed the state of transatlantic counterterrorism cooperation and recommended policy responses and best practices.
Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08) is the Vice Chair of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Ad Hoc Committee on Countering Terrorism, which assesses terrorism trends in the OSCE region and works to advance the OSCE’s efforts in countering terrorism. The Helsinki Commission, the OSCE PA, and OSCE participating States recognize that measures to counter terrorism should be undertaken in strict accordance with the rule of law, the UN Charter, and international human rights, refugee, and humanitarian law.