Amnesty International Misses the Mark on Torture in Kazakhstan

Amnesty International has called on Kazakhstan’s President, Nursultan Nazarbaev, to stop “pulling the wool over the eyes of the international community in his government’s promise to eradicate torture and fully investigate the lethal force by police.” Nazarbaev’s sin, according to Amnesty, is that his pledge did not immediately end all instances of torture and official brutality in the former Soviet Republic.

Torture is reprehensible, and official torture worse, because it becomes another element in a government’s ability to control its people. Kazakhstan has a history of official torture reaching back into Soviet times and beyond, and the burden lies on Nazarbaev’s administration to eradicate this scourge once and for all. Undeniably, Astana can and should do more, faster than it has to date.

Amnesty is doing nothing to help this process.

The international group has grown increasingly detached from reality over time, and this is no less an instance of that trend than its decision to make some parts of democratic politics proof of political repression. Amnesty has the advantage of being able to call shots outside the bounds of human reason, and then to stand judge when the mere humans fail to accomplish their tasks.

Kazakhstan is a repeatedly-brutalized Russian client state with a terribly decimated civil society. Its government is determined to be a modern one, yet the best it has so far managed is to license friendly political parties who agree with the state. Its economy is hampered in hundreds of ways, its population overwhelmingly poor and functionally illiterate, and its civil service and police developed with Soviet attitudes and practices undiminished by two decades of nominal independence.

With all of that, expecting a magical overnight cultural change is simply perverse. The police and other authorities take torture and abuse as necessary and inextricable components of their jobs. Teaching them that breaking fingers does not actually advance the cause of justice will require years of training, internal culture change, and personnel change, because right now, a solid minority are not dedicated to (1) advancing (2) the cause (3) of justice. That minority is disproportionately entrenched in upper leadership, and the prevailing culture (nationally and in the security force) only encourages their beliefs and behaviors.

Yelling at Astana for failing to bring in UN representatives to tell these people what to do is not actually going to turn them into Switzerland. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Amnesty does perform a vital function in keeping a spotlight on these practices. But perhaps, next time, they might consider a brighter light and a softer voice.