Turkmenistan: Liberal legislation is a façade, many serious problems in practice

Forced labor remains a concern in Turkmenistan, especially in the cotton fields. Photo credit: kevinkoski.com

The Second Periodic Report of Turkmenistan was reviewed by the Human Rights Committee on the 8th and 9th of March 2017. Numerous serious human rights issues were discussed during the dialogue.

First of all, the Committee had questions concerning the implementation of the ICCPR since 8 cases against Turkmenistan await implementation on the national level in which the Committee found violations of special gravity. Secondly, the treatment of refugees and of people in detention was the subject of many questions, especially regarding independent monitoring of the conditions. Thirdly, forced labor and human trafficking were extensively discussed since there are alarming reports about the work carried out in the cotton fields. Committee members also asked about discrimination, access to employment and domestic violence. Furthermore, the Committee asked more information about specific cases on enforced disappearances. Lastly, the freedom of movement, expression and assembly were dealt with: Turkmenistan has a mandatory registration system called the ‘Propiska’, restricting the freedom of movement. 

The webcast of the review is availabre here: part 1 and part 2.

"Next report of Turkmenistan is due by March 2020. This is the shortest possible period of time between two reviews, showing the serious concerns of the Committee regarding the State party. "

- Làzarie Eeckeloo, Researcher, Centre for Civil and Political Rights

Human trafficking

The Human Rights Committee raised concerns about human trafficking and forced labor, especially in the cotton fields. The delegation stated that human trafficking was an issue at the core of the government’s attention. A national plan of action was established in 2016. It drafted guidelines for labor migrants and victims and those leaflets are being distributed in public areas. A law was adopted by the Parliament that complies with international standards and extends the definition of ‘human trafficking’. A working group was set up in which both state officials and civil society are represented. The state’s main policy is that victims may not carry any administrative or criminal responsibility, including when they take unlawful actions. Victims can be transferred to specialized institutions or to a shelter to receive assistance and to ensure their safety. Training sessions, visits and seminars were organized for staff to look at best practices. Awareness-raising campaigns are carried out and two hotlines were opened that provide information on how to prevent human trafficking. However, only 3 cases of human trafficking were investigated in 2016 and NGOs emphasized that this problem remains a big issue (see here). 

The liberal media law and the freedom of assembly

Turkmenistan adopted a very liberal media law. According to the delegation, the new media law is of great importance to integrate the national media into the international media space. However, NGOs say it is dead letter: media companies emerged after the adoption of the law, but they are not independent since they only make information of the state more accessible. They report negatively about activists, but even though Turkmen law prohibits slander, no action is taken against those reporting. The Committee was also concerned about the restricted access of the Turkmen population to the Internet.

The Committee was also worried about the detention of journalists and human rights defenders and asked more information on the measures taken to ensure that they can exercise their freedom of expression without harassment.

The delegation replied quite vaguely by saying that journalists may move freely through the country to prepare objective reports after they filed a request. However, NGOs say that the situation of human rights defenders and journalists has worsened since August 2016, when secret police started to harass and arrest activists.

Furthermore, the Committee was concerned about a law restricting the freedom of assembly: assemblies have to be held in places designed for them. The delegation justified this restriction by referring to public order. Thus, assemblies cannot be held in places where it creates a threat to the security. These places include airports, gas lines, and other places where mass events might disrupt the proper functioning of the infrastructure involved. This is the reason why local bodies must give their permission on the location. Local authorities can cancel a demonstration when it presents a threat to security, when participants violate the law or when the organization does not take the necessary measures to provide public order. 


Many questions concerning discrimination remained unanswered. The Turkmen anti-discrimination law contains an open list of prohibited grounds, but the delegation did not clarify whether sexual orientation and gender identity are included. Moreover, consensual same-sex relations are still criminalized in Turkmen law: it is punishable by imprisonment up to 2 years. The state is not planning on decriminalizing this because traditional family values are important in Turkmen society, according to the delegation.

Another important issue is access to employment in relation to discrimination. A presidential decree prioritizes residents of the capital for employment and restricts access for other citizens. 

Recommendations of the Committee

The Concluding Observations for which the State should provide information on the implementation within one year, concern:

  • Secret detention and enforced disappearances
    • End the practice of secret detention and enforced disappearances
    • Disclose the fate or whereabouts of forcibly displaced persons
    • Allow visits from families and confidential access to lawyers for all detained persons
    • Investigate all reported cases, punish the perpetrators and provide reparation to the victims or their families
  • Torture and ill-treatment
    • Take urgent and robust measures to eliminate torture and ill-treatment effectively
    • Ensure that the prohibitions of forced confessions and the inadmissibility of evidence procured by torture are effectively enforced
    • End impunity for such acts, inter alia by training law enforcement personnel adequately on torture prevention and humane treatment
    • Establish an accessible and effective complaint mechanism
    • Ensure that all allegations of torture and other ill-treatment, hazing and deaths in custody are reported and promptly and thoroughly investigated by an independent and impartial body. Prosecute perpetrators and provide victims with reparation.
  • Treatment of prisoners
    • Establish a system of regular and independent monitoring of places of detention without prior notice and grant this body meaningful access to places of detention
    • Take effective measures to eliminate overcrowding
    • Take serious efforts to improve conditions of detention in accordance with the Nelson Mandela rules
    • Ensure the availability of an effective complaint mechanism
    • Investigate violations of inmates’ rights promptly and thoroughly, punish the perpetrators and provide reparation to the victims 

The next (third) periodic report of Turkmenistan should be submitted by 29 March 2020. The next report of Turkmenistan is due by March 2020. This is the shortest possible period of time between two reviews, showing the serious concerns of the Committee regarding the State party. 

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