HRD Interview: Mukhtar Umbetov, Сhairman of Territorial Association of Mangystau Regional Trade Unions, Kazakhstan
What is the situation like for human rights defenders, working on business-related human rights issues in Kazakhstan? Are there sufficient protections for HRDs?
It is critical in Kazakhstan. The last detention of Lukpan Akhmedyarov is an example of that. The law does not work for human rights defenders, ordinary citizens.
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?
Criminal prosecutions are the greatest risks. You know perfectly well, the last year, the story of Semyonova, as well as the story of Alima: in Aktyubinsk, a human rights activist who dealt with problems of orphans. The daily threat is obstruction of human rights defenders’ activities. Over the past five years, since 2016, when protests on land issues began, since then there has been a tightening or restriction of the activities of human rights activists.
During the pandemic, let's say, it worsened, since the authorities now have an additional resource on a legislative basis to legitimately suppress any human rights activity.
Can you tell us more about your work on business and human rights?
The main work is labor relations issues. I said at the beginning: the law does not work. When citizens hit a wall, where do they go? The most important demand is the demand for social justice. When citizens face problems, where do they go? First of all, they should go to law enforcement agencies, executive authorities, but they go to journalists, public figures, civic activists, and in extreme cases they take to the streets. The activities of civic activists are in plain sight and they turn to me for various reasons. For example, the recent case of Boszhyr, although I am not an ecologist, they turned to me. I am a person with an active civic position. When all these outrages occur in my country, in my homeland in Mangystau, I am not indifferent. Let it be labor disputes or intrusion of private business into protected areas, be it a pandemic and helping those who are sick.
I have been engaged in this social and political work since 1989 starting with the anti-nuclear Nevada-Semipalatinsk movement.
Can you share the kinds of threats and attacks you have experienced as a result of it? How were companies involved in this?
The last attempt to put pressure on me was made in January 2017, after a strike at OCC [Oil Construction Company] in Mangistau region. When Amin Yeleusinov was arrested, although we work in different trade union organizations, we supported them out of the principle of working solidarity and when they were arrested, activists from other regions of Kazakhstan came here. Meetings were held in our office and after that criminal cases were opened against me. In 2019, when I was present at the trial of Aigul Ayberd, just came to support her as a mother of four children, and it is strange that for some reason I was summoned to the Regional Department of Internal Affairs, the Prosecutor's Office. They wanted to interrogate me, to film me, as if I was also a member of an unregistered public association.
In the 2000s, I was subjected to arrests, dismissals, and beatings, even my wife was fired from work, my son was expelled from the university, children were threatened.
The companies were absolutely involved. If hundreds of people come out, then it’s a matter of the company, it’s a real problem, no matter what people ask. But for some reason, the Prosecutor's Office, the police appear in the forefront against the protesters, and pressure begins.
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?
I know a lot of people, but I don't usually ask for help. I am grateful to everyone who helped and helps in difficult times, whether they are compatriots or colleagues from foreign trade unions.
Are businesses cooperating with civil society when concerns are raised about their operations? Can you share some positive examples, if there are any?
Based on my work experience, I can say that heads of foreign companies understand the situation better and are more willing to make contact than our Kazakhstani ones. Western companies know the problems of labor relations, know what trade unions are, what they are capable of. And how do our Kazakhs behave? They don't talk to people, they behave arrogantly.
Foreign companies’ executives invite people to talk and are always interested in risks that may occur within the company.
The exception is Chinese companies. Of all foreign companies, they have the lowest wages and low social conditions. They also do not engage in dialogue to discuss issues we could have suggestions on.
Have any investors or companies supported human rights defenders beyond their operations?
I have not seen any support in those public associations in which I work with colleagues.
What role does the government play? Is it supportive of human rights defenders? Or do you feel pressure from the government?
The Government should not support anyone; work should be carried out within the framework of its powers and laws. And human rights organizations should monitor the legality of execution, the transparency. Because without transparency, without control, there will be no order. The government and officials have huge resources in their hands. Without the control of civil society, there will be constant abuse. At the highest level people live on their own, make some plans, systems, but at the grassroots level, people stew in their own juice. I see complete disappointment at the grassroots level. I asked to be admitted to the Public Council, passed a psychological test and other requirements, collected documents, but when they published the results, it turns out that I did not pass. There are unknown people in this Public Council, and I do not know these people, even though I am a civic activist. What can we say about solving some problems? You can see for yourself what is happening. I do not assess their actions, they should be assessed by other people.
What do you think the government or investors/companies can do to improve the protection of human rights defenders?
They don't have to do anything. If you look at the law, we're fine. Another issue is the demand for its appropriate enforcement by the state institution. It is necessary for the law to work in our country, so that there is no social injustice; so that the interests of every citizen are equal, that both the rich and those who work with a plow and a machine have equal opportunities, access to basic things: education, health care, a roof over their heads, means of social mobility. What is needed for this? We need a dialogue. When there is a dialogue, any war ends in peace. Why take it to the extreme? We need political reforms to make laws work. Then human rights defenders will not be needed.
What can international organizations and community do to help protect human rights defenders on the ground?
To monitor the situations, to protect the citizens’ interests.
What drives you to do your work? How do you think it contributes to achieving corporate accountability for human rights abuses?
I enjoy solving even one person's problem, some small group or sometimes a large one. If I have followers, then I am doing something right. I am proud that today the oil workers in Mangystau are the most organized working class, which knows how to defend their interests without any strikes. I'm proud that I stood at the origin with the activists.
I am encouraged that not all is lost in the country. People should be engaged; people must learn to defend their rights - this is also a science. All trouble comes from ignorance, both on the part of those in power and on the part of ordinary citizens. A drop of water wears away a stone.
Of course, everyone wants a solution to the problem immediately. I am convinced that every person who claims his/her rights contributes to the common cause. A stream is born from a drop, and a river arises from a stream.