The World Health Organization, a UN body, has drawn sharp criticism for holding a meeting of the “Framework Convention on Tobacco Control” about reducing tobacco consumption in the unlikely country of Turkmenistan, a repressive state with a morbid human rights record. To further heighten the irony, the meeting concluded just two days before the UN celebrated Press Freedom Day, a measure of democratic transparency which sees Turkmenistan languishing in 178th place out of 180 countries ranked.
It is not the first time the WHO has seemingly rewarded Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov for his success at reducing tobacco consumption in the country he has ruled with an iron fist since 2006: in 2014 Turkmenistan was presented with a ‘special recognition certificate’ for measures on ‘tobacco control’ after it made smoking illegal in public places. That it should be seen to be applauding laws that have been passed by dictatorial fiat rather than democratic process is not a good look for the UN. The WHO itself has faced multiple accusations of being too bureaucratic and for holding meetings behind closed doors, hidden much like Turkmenistan from prying eyes. A 2014 meeting held in Moscow was blighted by similar problems, after organizers prevented journalists and the public alike from attending.
April was also the ‘month of health and sport’ in Turkmenistan, a soviet-style affectation of national vigor where, among other things, workers are forced to partake in compulsory fitness classes in their workplaces. Also compulsory in Turkmenistan is attendance at the president Berdymukhammedov’s hours’ long speeches, where they are not allowed to leave or use the toilet. At one such event for the opening of a stadium in Ashbagat attendees were forced to wait for several hours in 41-degree heat, leading to the deaths of 3 people. As a Human Rights Watch report points out, this is all in keeping with the cult of personality fostered since Berdymukhammedov came to power following a largely uncontested election upon the death of his predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006.
In a reigon which has exhibited all the tried and trusted policies of a dictatorship, freedom of assembly is non-existent, except where approved by the government; religious congregation is banned with practitioners regularly subject to fines, arrest and torture; political prisoners are held indefinitely and without charge with dozens becoming victims of enforced disappearance. Berdymukhammedov also maintains an iron-clad control over the media with foreign outlets unable to access the country and journalists with Radio Azatlyk, the only source of alternative news, met with constant harassment and intimidation. All websites must be maintained by government agencies, social media and messenger services are blocked, and Internet cafe users are required to register their personal details before being allowed online.
Even in health care, for which the WHO has apparently seen fit to commend Turkmenistan by holding its anti-tobacco conference there, the picture is decidedly grim. To be fair, Berdymukhammedov has reversed some of the worst policies implemented by the previous government, like closing down all of the hospitals outside the capital on the grounds that they were ‘unnecessary luxuries’. But the reopened hospitals are severely dilapidated and rife with corruption. Although the state is supposed to provide health insurance for all citizens from its enormous gas revenues, patients end up having to shell out for everything from hospital beds to food to medicine and surgery. All of which constitute bribes on top of what they officially pay for their hospital stay, and in many cases results in patients having to sell their homes and cars to avoid falling into penury.
However, thanks to its relative stability, strategic position in Central Asia, and important gas reserves, Turkmenistan is rarely making front page news. A plethora of countries, ranging from Belarus to Saudi Arabia and Thailand have been cozying up to the Ashgabat tyrant in exchange for economic benefits. Even Switzerland, a luminary of economic development, has sought to expand ties with Turkmenistan in the political, trade, economic, cultural and humanitarian fields. Ironically, on May 4th, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe held a two-day master class in the country on best practices in “regulating online media and broadcasting”. The WHO is decidedly in good company when it comes to looking past the litany of human rights abuses and stifling corruption to offer Turkmenistan dubious honors.
While the WHO’s regular discussions on tobacco control play a vital role in deciding future tobacco policy, in this case the best thing to arguably come out of the WHO meeting in Ashgabat is not whatever anti-smoking action plan is devised, but rather, the attention it has drawn to what a serial abuser Turkmenistan is of everything that the UN purports to hold dear.
*Steven Paulauskas writes on Eastern European Perspectives and is an independent consultant based between London and Vilnius.