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Rushed efforts in Kyrgyzstan to introduce far-reaching constitutional changes before new parliamentary elections endanger fundamental human rights and the democratic process, Human Rights Watch said on Saturday. Draft constitutional amendments, which could be put to a vote by referendum on January 10, 2021, were made public on November 17, 2020 after the former acting president, Sapar Japarov, called for constitutional changes.
“Kyrgyzstan’s caretaker parliament does not have the legitimacy to initiate far-reaching constitutional amendments, especially in a way contrary to the process provided for in the constitution,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Any constitutional reforms should be delayed until after a new parliament is sworn in, so that there’s no doubt about Kyrgyzstan’s commitment to human rights and the rule of law.”
The role of this outgoing parliament is not to rush in constitutional amendments, but to discharge essential governance functions in line with the rule of law until the will of the people is expressed in a free and fair election, Human Rights Watch said.
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Following the disputed October 4 parliamentary elections and ensuing protests, Kyrgyzstan’s Central Election Committee (CEC) on October 6 annulled the outcome. On October 21, the committee scheduled a rerun of parliamentary elections for December 20.
However, on October 22, parliament adopted amendments postponing new parliamentary elections until sometime before June 2021 to allow for constitutional reforms. The amendments were adopted in violation of procedural norms, rushed through three readings in parliament in one day.
On November 2, Kyrgyzstan’s Constitutional Chamber said it would consider an appeal of the constitutionality of the amendments adopted on October 22.
Meanwhile, in a November 17 Urgent Amicus Curiae brief, the European Commission For Democracy through Law, also known as the Venice Commission, said that “When the mandate of the Parliament ends, its political legitimacy is diminished” and, at this time, Kyrgyzstan’s “Parliament is only allowed to carry out some ordinary functions, whereas it is not allowed to approve extraordinary measures, including constitutional reforms.”
The substance of the proposed constitutional changes is of great concern, Human Rights Watch said.
The changes are far-reaching in terms of how Kyrgyzstan is governed, significantly weakening Kyrgyzstan’s parliament, introducing a people’s council, and concentrating power in the presidency. Whether the country should have a presidential system or a parliamentary system is a political choice to be made by citizens. But what is important from a human rights perspective is that whatever the political system, it has checks and balances to prevent abuse of power by those who hold political office.
The proposed constitutional changes significantly erode checks and balances on the executive, Human Rights Watch said.
The proposals also include, for example, a measure that would prohibit publications, including electronic media, as well as shows and public events contrary to “generally recognized moral values and the traditions of the people of Kyrgyzstan.” Such a provision is incompatible with Kyrgyzstan’s obligations to respect and protect fundamental rights of expression, assembly, and association.
In addition, there is not enough time between now and January 10, when the constitutional changes could go to a vote by referendum, to adhere to the time frame requirements outlined in the constitution for adopting the draft law on constitutional amendments, raising serious concerns about the good faith intent in pursuing these amendments, Human Rights Watch said. Art. 114 states that to change the constitution, “A law on amendments to this constitution shall be adopted by the Jogorku Kenesh [parliament] by a majority of at least two-thirds of the total number of deputies of the Jogorku Kenesh after at least three readings with an interval of two months between readings.”
In the days since the draft constitutional amendments were made public, they have garnered significant criticism, including from current parliament members, former Interim President Roza Otunbaeva, and human rights defenders and activists, among others. A peaceful march “For the Constitution!” has been called for November 22 in Bishkek.
After elections are held and a new parliament is sworn in, then Kyrgyzstan’s parliament could propose constitutional reforms and a full deliberative consultation process can take place, Human Rights Watch said.
Kyrgyzstan’s international partners, in particular the European Union and its member states, the US, and the UK, should publicly urge the Kyrgyz government to give due weight to the conclusions of the Venice Commission’s amicus curiae brief and to ensure that upcoming elections take place in accordance with Kyrgyzstan’s constitution and fundamental freedoms.
“The fact that Kyrgyzstan’s leadership is trying to ram through constitutional changes now, before holding a rerun of the parliamentary election and in violation of the procedures laid out in the constitution, suggests ulterior motives,” Williamson said. “The priority now should be on ensuring free, fair, and timely elections.”