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HRD Interview: Irina Chereneva, Chairwoman of Shakhterskaya Semya NGO, Kazakhstan

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

Irina Cherneva is a human rights defender from Kazakhstan who has been providing legal support to miners on labour rights issues for 10 years. This interview was conducted as part of research on cases of persecution of human rights defenders working on corporate accountability in Kazakhstan. Results of the research will be published on our website at the end of April.

What is the situation like for human rights defenders, working on business-related human rights issues in Kazakhstan? Are there sufficient protections for HRDs?

We work within the labor [legislation] field. We solve problems in courts by means of communication with state authorities. Practice shows that employers do not make contact before the trial. The conciliation commission does not always make a decision that would satisfy the employee. It is more effective for us to go to court.

What are the greatest risks human rights defenders are currently facing? Has the situation improved or worsened over the last five years? Has it changed during COVID-19, and if so how?

We have learned how to work with Government agencies by means of correspondence. If it does not work, we appeal to the Prosecutor's Office. There is no pressure right now. The situation has improved over the past three years.

Can you tell us more about your work on business and human rights?

We deal with all issues related to workers, up to housing issues. The cases are very different.

Can you share the kinds of threats and attacks you have experienced as a result of it? How were companies involved in this?

In 2018, criminal cases were opened against our trade union leaders when hundreds of miners went on strike underground. According to the statement of ArcelorMittal Temirtau, a civil case was initiated against the leaders, later they withdrew their claim. In my opinion, a well-written review of the lawsuit influenced their decision.

What has been the response of other NGOs to the attacks you have been experiencing? How about the general public? The international community, including buyers from and investors in Kazakhstan?

The court hearings were attended by representatives of independent trade unions, including the trade union of the Fuel and Energy Complex. There was no foreign support.

Are businesses cooperating with civil society when concerns are raised about their operations? Can you share some positive examples, if there are any?

Of course, they enter into dialogue, but they always try to put forward their own demands.

Have any investors or companies supported human rights defenders beyond their operations?

We are definitely not supported. We are supported only by our miners - about 50 people.

What role does the government play? Is it supportive of human rights defenders? Or do you feel pressure from the government?

At the moment there is no pressure. We interact by means of correspondence. If the Akimat - Department of Domestic Policy - can decide something, we appeal to them. There is no material support, but the Department solves labor problems. For example, a group of miners in late 2020 appealed to the Department of Domestic Policy on the issue of excessive working hours. We solved the problem of workers there. It is also subject to their interest because they are responsible for stability in the city and region.

What drives you to do your work? How do you think it contributes to achieving corporate accountability for human rights abuses?

For ten years I have been working with people and this is already a part of my life - helping others. It is necessary in our legislation to provide for the protection of public figures. We need to make the law work.