David Cameron has become the first serving prime minister to visit Kazakhstan, as he bids to boost British trade with the mineral-rich country.
Kazakhstan has been identified by the British government as “one of about two dozen global powers”, and a key trade target. However, Kazakhstan also has a questionable human rights record – and human rights organisations have been quick to call for the prime minister to raise abuses on his trip.
Downing Street has said Mr Cameron will raise the issues of abuse allegations when he holds talks with President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Human Rights Watch says Kazakhstan’s human rights record has “seriously deteriorated following violent clashes in December 2011 between police and demonstrators.”
The government blamed that unrest on the political opposition and oil workers, leading to opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov being jailed on “vague and overbroad criminal charges”, Human Rights Watch says.
Kazakhstan might be knee-deep in oil and gas wealth, but David Cameron shouldn’t let lucrative energy deals prevent him from raising human rights during his trip. Amnesty International
Human Rights Watch also says freedom of assembly is strictly controlled, independent media outlets have been shut down, restrictive law on religious freedoms remains in force and strikes in certain sectors are banned.
In an open letter to Mr Cameron, Human Rights Watch’s UK director David Mephan said: “We are very concerned about the serious and deteriorating human rights situation there in recent years, including credible allegations of torture, the imprisonment of government critics, tight controls over the media and freedom of expression and association, limits on religious freedom, and continuing violations of workers’ rights.”
Amnesty International UK’s head of policy and government affairs Allan Hogarth said: “Kazakhstan might be knee-deep in oil and gas wealth, but David Cameron shouldn’t let lucrative energy deals prevent him from raising human rights during his trip.”
Mr Nazarbayev has been in power since the Soviet era and has led the country’s economic transformation on the back of its mineral wealth.
Speaking about the visit, Kazakhstan’s foreign minister Erlan Idrissov said: “We are very honoured and privileged to have such attention on the part of two prime ministers (towards) Kazakhstan – Tony Blair and David Cameron.”
On human rights, in all the relationships we have, there’s never anything off the table. David Cameron
Mr Blair did not visit the country as a serving prime minister, but has played a key role in the country’s development since leaving office.
Mr Idrissov said Kazakhstan was aware of criticisms about the country’s human rights record. He said: “We are a young nation so we are making our first steps. We do hear criticisms.
“We do not feel absolutely unhappy about those criticisms. We patiently explain to our partners that we are not today a Jeffersonian democracy and that a Jeffersonian democracy is our ultimate destination.”
Mr Cameron said: “On human rights, in all the relationships we have, there’s never anything off the table, we raise and discuss all these issues and that will be the case in Kazakhstan as well.
“I think it is important to make this visit and it’s very much something I chose and wanted to do.
“Kazakhstan is one of the rising economic powers in the world. I think it’s very important that British business, British investment and British firms get a proper chance in Kazakhstan, they’re doing that, I want to help them to do that.
“Other European leaders have been and I think it’s high time a British prime minister went.”