UNRCCA (Central Asia)
Expected Council Action
In July, the Special Representative and head of the UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia (UNRCCA), Natalia Gherman, is expected to brief Security Council members in closed consultations on UNRCCA’s activities. The consultations are expected to be held in person.
Key Recent Developments
Gherman last briefed Council members in videoconference (VTC) closed consultations on 27 January. She provided an update on UNRCCA’s activities pertaining to counter-terrorism, transboundary water management, border demarcation, and regional cooperation with Afghanistan. Gherman also described the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the region and briefed on her October 2020 trip to Kyrgyzstan and the December 2020 launch of the Central Asia Women Leaders’ Caucus.
Since Gherman’s last Council briefing, there has been significant unrest on the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. This unrest erupted as a result of a dispute over the water distribution facility Golovnoi, which is located near the disputed Tajik-Kyrgyz border and the Tajik enclave Vorukh. Vorukh is completely enclosed by Kyrgyzstan and has recently been the subject of negotiations to delimit the Tajik-Kyrgyz border, with Kyrgyzstan offering Tajikistan an area of identical size in the Batken region in exchange for Vorukh. According to media reports, this offer was not well received by officials in Tajikistan.
Golovnoi ordinarily channels water from the Ak-Suu/Isfara river to the Tortkul reservoir, from which water is distributed to subsistence farmers in Kyrgyzstan. During April and May, however, Golovnoi pumps water from the Ak-Suu/Isfara river towards Tajikistan, where it provides irrigation for export crops of apricots, apples, cherries, rice, and wheat in the Isfara region. The facility is part of a broader water-sharing agreement, by which 55 percent of water flow from the Ak-Suu/Isfara river goes to Tajikistan, 37 percent to Kyrgyzstan, and the remaining 8 percent to Uzbekistan. Ownership of the facility is hotly contested. Kyrgyzstan claims that it owns Golovnoi because it was built by the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic in 1973 and because the country pays to maintain it. Tajikistan disputes these claims, contending that maintenance work has not been carried out at Golovnoi for many years.
The unrest began after Tajiks tried to install surveillance cameras near Golovnoi on 28 April in response to maintenance undertaken by Kyrgyz workers at the facility earlier in the month. According to media reports, the head of water and land resources management in Tajikistan’s Isfara district, Rustam Shomirsaidov, indicated that Tajikistan did not want Kyrgyzstan to repair Golovnoi, as doing so would allow Kyrgyzstan to claim ownership of the facility. Stone throwing between local communities quickly escalated into more serious violence, with border troops from both countries engaging in a pitched battle that involved machine guns and mortars. More than 50 people were killed and hundreds more were injured before a ceasefire was agreed on 29 April. There was also significant loss of property, particularly in villages on the Kyrgyz side of the border. Media reports indicate that many villagers lost their homes and that a number of schools were destroyed. Over 58,000 people in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were displaced as a result of the fighting. Overall, the violence is considered to be the worst cross-border military conflict in Central Asia in recent years.
On 30 April, Gherman had separate telephone conversations with the two countries’ foreign affairs ministers—Ruslan Kazakbaev of Kyrgyzstan and Sirojiddin Muhriddin of Tajikistan—to discuss the situation at the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. Both ministers described their attempts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict, which included the ceasefire and the establishment of a joint working group to develop measures to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future. Kazakbaev reportedly noted that there were casualties on both sides and referred to the destruction of infrastructure in the Batken region of Kyrgyzstan. He indicated that he was hopeful that the UN would provide assistance to internally displaced persons returning to their homes and help them restore property that they lost during the fighting. Kazakbaev also stressed that these restoration works would be a key pillar in efforts to build a sustainable peace in the region.
In both calls, Gherman expressed deep regret regarding the loss of life and injuries sustained during the conflict. She also welcomed the dialogue between the two countries and the decision to continue the work of the intergovernmental commission on delimitation and demarcation of the border before expressing her support for the measures intended to deescalate the situation and urging both states to intensify efforts to find a long-term solution to border disputes. Gherman concluded her calls by noting that the UN stands ready to provide any necessary support, including technical assistance with the implementation of agreements reached between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, within the framework of existing regional and bilateral programs.
Despite the positive developments mentioned in these conversations, tensions have escalated again in recent weeks. On 4 June, Tajik military personnel placed a container in a disputed area. In a statement, the Kyrgyz State Committee for National Security accused Tajikistan of violating border agreements. Tajikistan rejected this accusation, and its border service claimed in a press release that its unit had been operating in Tajik territory. Although this incident did not result in further violence, officials in the region have reportedly indicated that the situation remains tense.
In a separate development, on 13 November 2020, UNRCCA announced a Joint Statement of Intent between Kyrgyzstan and the UN following a period of political unrest in the country. The Kyrgyz government pledged, among other things, to maintain the rule of law, follow principles of good governance, and protect and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of speech. On 30 March, Gherman met with Kyrgyzstan’s president, Sadyr Japarov. Gherman underlined the importance of implementing reforms in accordance with the Joint Statement of Intent and indicated that the UN will assist judicial and administrative reforms in Kyrgyzstan by providing expertise and technical assistance. She also proposed the establishment of a UN-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue, with a view to enabling the timely provision of expert support and information exchange. Japarov outlined his intention to protect and uphold the rights and freedoms of the Kyrgyz people, including freedom of speech. Despite these assurances, Kyrgyzstan’s caretaker parliament approved a draft law on 21 April that amended the Criminal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code and which, according to Human Rights Watch, undermines the rights to freedom of association and expression in Kyrgyzstan. Approval by the caretaker parliament was the first step in a three-stage legislative process for enactment of the draft law.
Because of restrictions on travel related to COVID-19, UNRCCA has largely moved its preventive diplomacy activities online since the onset of the pandemic, holding several meetings via VTC, including a session aimed at encouraging cooperation to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. On 16 March, UNRCCA held a three-day workshop on preventing and combatting the illicit trafficking of small arms and light weapons and their supply to terrorists in collaboration with the UN Counter-Terrorism Centre within the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT-UNCCT), the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in partnership with the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED), and the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA). Addressing the meeting, Gherman said that Central Asian states have made significant efforts to prevent and combat the trafficking of small arms and light weapons. She also highlighted the threat that militarisation of terrorist groups poses to all countries.
Key Issues and Options
One of the main issues for the Council is how to make better use of UNRCCA’s experience in conflict prevention and whether there is anything else the Council could do to support UNRCCA’s role in facilitating preventive diplomacy and regional cooperation.
Council members will be monitoring the situation on the Tajik-Kyrgyz border and may be particularly interested in its potential impact on stability in the region. With this in mind, Council members could consider issuing a press statement welcoming both countries’ efforts to resolve the dispute peacefully. Council members may also wish to discuss developments in Kyrgyzstan and the importance of the Joint Statement of Intent between Kyrgyzstan and the UN. They are likely to highlight and commend the work UNRCCA is doing to encourage states in Central Asia to respond collectively to COVID-19, climate change, resource management, and other issues. UNRCCA’s efforts to include the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and the Afghan government in regional cooperation measures may also be discussed, particularly in light of the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan.
An ongoing issue for the Council is mitigation of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic that could affect international peace and security, including the secondary impacts on the socioeconomic wellbeing of the people of Central Asia, counter-terrorism measures, and the human rights situation. Some members might emphasise the importance of ensuring equitable access to vaccines and respecting the rule of law and human rights when formulating responses to the pandemic.
Council members are generally supportive of the work of UNRCCA and view it as an important tool in promoting cooperation in Central Asia. Council members have been unable to agree on a press statement on UNRCCA since January 2018, owing to disagreements about including references to cooperation with the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
In addition, it appears that several Council members have raised issues relating to human rights during the consultations, with Germany and the US referring in previous meetings to the situation of Uighur minorities in the region. Other members, including China and Russia, have opposed discussion of this matter, arguing that it is not related to UNRCCA’s mandate. This has led some Council members to mention the need to uphold human rights without referencing Uighur minorities. In addition, disagreements regarding references to foreign terrorist fighters in Central Asia arose following the last round of consultations earlier in the year.
UN DOCUMENTS ON UNRCCA
|Security Council Letters|
|7 May 2007S/2007/279||This was a letter from the Secretary-General on the establishment of a United Nations Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy in Ashgabat.|
|Security Council Press Statements|
|25 January 2018SC/13179||This was a press statement welcoming further cooperation and coordination between UNRCCA, the Central Asian States, and relevant regional organisations, including those organisations of which the Central Asian States are members.|