HRD Interview: Pavel Lobachev, Chairman of the Board of Ekho NGO, 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?
In principle, our human rights defenders are not protected by the system.
When human rights defenders hurt the interests of the system, by the system I mean the government, some kind of persecution immediately begins. While there is freedom of speech in other countries, in Kazakhstan some kind of persecution immediately begins against human rights defenders.
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?
With recent events, we can say suspension of activities until further closure. If an organization conducts its activities at odds with the interests of the state, then - up to closure. The situation has deteriorated much, it has become much worse. In principle, it was not optimistic. I can tell you about the elections. During the pandemic, our government used the pandemic as a tool to prevent observers from entering the polling stations. You may have heard that observers were forced to undergo PCR tests. Fortunately, it was done for free. Organizations that represented the state, let us say, all sorts of civil unions, independent trade unions, they received information that it is possible to pass the PCR tests 10 days before the elections, but the organizations of independent associations, for example, Erkindik Kanaty, they received such information 3 days before the elections.
Can you tell us more about your work on business and human rights?
Our work is more related to analytics, we analyze legislation, state reports on the extractive industry; that is, we work on the initiative of the transparency of the extractive industry. This is when companies disclose certain forms of their payments to the state - how much was paid to certain funds and for what, and the state reports what money it received. And now we demand that there should be disclosure of how these funds are spent. We are fighting corruption, so that you can see where the money goes. Here is an interesting example, in one of the western regions a stadium was built for 10 million US dollars. One of the big companies donated money for the stadium. Everything is good - children need to practice. But the exact same stadium according to the same project was built in the neighboring region for only 2 million US dollars. Where did the difference of 8 million go? This is one of the aspects of our work.
Can you share the kinds of threats and attacks you have experienced as a result of it? How were companies involved in this?
We had everything: starting from the prosecutor's checks, the financial police came, the tax inspectorate comes constantly. Once we publish a powerful statement or some other things, representatives of government agencies immediately come to us with a check. For example, we were conducting an advocacy campaign to change media legislation and when we made a statement that the amendments the government was making were completely inconsistent with international standards, the tax police came to our office without any charges, they just broke into the office, took all our documents, computers and began to pursue a case against us.
But international structures intervened in this situation, the US Secretary of State made inquiries and after that the documents were returned to us. That was a long time ago. Of the more recent ones, the tax authorities came to us with demands that we allegedly submitted forms # 17, 18 incorrectly, although we showed that we did everything right. We were issued a resolution with a fine of more than a million and a hundred thousand tenge, plus a suspension of activities until April 15. It is more about connected with the elections, because we are observing the elections, it started in November and lasted until January 15.
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?
NGOs usually always come together. We are based in Almaty, so we work very closely with the Human Rights Bureau. Evgeniy Zhovtis always helped us with lawyers and other things. During the last case of NGO persecution, Transparency International made a very strong statement, after which this act began.
Are businesses cooperating with civil society when concerns are raised about their operations? Can you share some positive examples, if there are any?
No, it didn't happen. I've never seen it.
Have any investors or companies supported human rights defenders beyond their operations?
I don't think they support human rights defenders.
What role does the government play? Is it supportive of human rights defenders? Or do you feel pressure from the government?
If we take our organization, I have not seen support from the state. It seems to me that our state does not help human rights defenders. Pressure occurs as soon as something goes beyond the interests of the state.
What do you think the government or investors/companies can do to improve the protection of human rights defenders?
First of all, everyone must abide by the law. That is, everyone should be equal before the law. If everyone is equally responsible, then it will be easier for human rights defenders to live. Companies have never manifested themselves, they have always taken a position of non-interference. For example, Chinese companies do not share information with anyone. They are not part of any initiative. They immediately said that they did not need this initiative.
What drives you to do your work? How do you think it contributes to achieving corporate accountability for human rights abuses?
We have been working for a very long time, I like it, the way of self-expression. When we started to implement this initiative, there were only total sums: how much the state received. Then we began to demand more accountability, developed special forms, that is, where they spent money. Some money is spent on the environment, development of youth, and so on. This shows how Kazakhstan can further invest in development. We demand proper use of allocated money, we demand that a certain number of the total number of employees be the local population. This is our job.