International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights: Open Letter to OSCE Ministerial Council
Vienna, 27-28 November 2000
On the occasion of the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting of the OSCE last month, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) detailed violations of the Helsinki "human dimension" standards by at least three quarters of the 55 members of the organization.
We would invite OSCE Ministers of Foreign Affairs to take the opportunity of their meeting in Vienna to address some of the most acute and persistent problems of non-implementation of Helsinki commitments, which continue to cause much suffering in the OSCE territory:
Specific Country and Regional Issues
- A political settlement of the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh is urgent, and the OSCE should do all in its power to contribute to finding an acceptable solution. The work of the Minsk Group has not given satisfactory results so far. Still, until an agreement is reached, hundreds of thousands refugees and displaced persons are kept captive of the lack of capacity of the parties involved to bring about a settlement of the issue. In Azerbaijan, more than 600 000 people live in deplorable conditions, in tents or compounds, having been waiting for up to nine years now to leave their "temporary" camps and get back to their homes.
- The population of Trans-Dniestra is abandoned to a self-proclaimed state, which neither recognizes nor applies international human rights standards. In spite of the commitment made by the Russian Federation at the Istanbul Summit Meeting in 1999 to gradually withdraw the troops of the Russian army stationed in the region (in view of a total withdrawal by the end of 2002), no progress has been made to date. This is a part of the OSCE territory where the organization exerts too little influence, while authorities of the Trans-Dniestrian region violate human rights in total impunity.
- There is still no accountability for war crimes committed in Chechnya. An International Commission of Inquiry is what the IHF has been insisting on both in the UN and the OSCE, but without success. Unless the OSCE presses for the Special Representative for Human Rights in Chechnya to engage in this work in an independent and impartial manner, or unless a high representative from an international organization is invited to join in these efforts, there will be no justice for victims of the Chechnya war. We appeal to you to condemn on the highest level continuing military actions in the region and reiterate the need for a political solution to the conflict.
- Progress on regional issues such as the return of refugees, the status and stability of Kosovo and accountability for war crimes in the Balkans are dependent upon key changes in the region, notably the present political developments in Serbia. In this context, the obligation to recognize and cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague should be stressed and imposed as a condition for further integration into European structures and international assistance. A commitment by the new leadership of FRY should be made to free all political prisoners from Kosovo, held in Serbian cells.
- The region of Central Asia shows common problems related to the deterioration in democracy and the rule of law, as well as concerns about political, religious and media freedoms, which demand attention from the OSCE. It is well-known that Islamists in Central Asia face serious repression, through mass arrests, and heavy sentences. The fight against terrorism should not be an excuse for arbitrary arrests and brutal oppression. The OSCE should press the Uzbek authorities to reconsider the cases of thousands of political prisoners. In the whole region, the organization should show a strong support for civil society, with a view of protecting individuals and groups threatened for their work as human rights defenders.
- The OSCE should address the threat to democracy and the rule-of-law posed in numerous countries of the former Soviet Union, after flawed referenda and elections marred by intimidation of opposition parties, lack of press freedom and attempts to control voting took place, for example, in Kyrgyzstan, Tadjikistan, Ukraine, Belarus, Turkmenistan and, most recently, Azerbaijan.
- Torture and inhumane treatment of detainees and prisoners by law enforcers exist in virtually all countries of the OSCE. Long proceedings and heavy sentences contribute to extreme overcrowding in prisons in virtually all transition states. There is widespread evidence of deliberate ill-treatment of prisoners, keeping them in inhumane conditions, in most former socialist states. The spread of tuberculosis is becoming a real threat to the lives of prisoners in each of these states. Other contagious diseases due to the poor conditions of living and of the low quality of food contribute to creating situations of epidemics. In Russia alone, according to official figures, the total number of inmates with tuberculosis is about 100,000. It is estimated that 14 000 inmates die every year in Russia, including inmates held in pre-trial detention, which virtually constitutes a de facto form of capital punishment even before trial.
- The existence of a minority is "a matter of fact, not a matter of law" (International Court of Justice). Still, some states continue to claim that minorities exist only when laws say so. Respect for the identity of any minority is the prerequisite for a country to be considered that it respects minority rights. We would urge the authorities of Albania, Bulgaria, France, Greece, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Turkey to respect the right of every individual claiming today minority identity, irrespective of historical traditions and geographical distribution, and grant all individuals belonging to these minorities at least all the rights provided by the related international norms. The OSCE, and especially the HCNM, is there to provide all necessary counseling and mediation.
- The OSCE should continue to give full attention to the issue of Roma, who face severe problems of discrimination, racism and xenophobia. Hostility towards Roma is increasing (e.g. skinhead attacks on Roma in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, intolerance in Greece, Hungary, Macedonia and Ukraine). Roma in Kosovo suffer assumptions of their collective guilt for collaboration with Serb forces and participation in war crimes during the conflict there.
Wishing you a fruitful meeting,
Ludmilla Alexeyeva, President
Aaron Rhodes, Executive Director
 The IHF refers you to the recent report entitled "Welcome to Hell", published by our affiliate, Human Rights Watch/ Europe and Central Asia. This extensive report documents human rights violations committed in Chechnya, and especially arbitrary detention and torture.
=A9 International Helsinki Federation