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How Will the Shanghai Cooperation Organization “Harmonize” Central Asia?

June 16, 2011

On June 15, China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi in a newspaper editorial appraised and signaled the ambitions of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional group composed of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. He called the SCO “an inspiration to the world” and a “major contribution to efforts to ... build a harmonious region.” On the same day, at the SCO’s tenth anniversary summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, heads of state of the six nations pledged deepening regional cooperation, formalized a mechanism for expansion, and reiterated the fight against the “Three Evil Forces” of terrorism, separatism, and extremism as the SCO’s top priority.

“The record of the SCO over the past ten years demonstrates that the organization has provided a regional cover for domestic abuses by each of its member states, as well as a platform for internationalizing domestic and regional practices that undermine human rights,” said Sharon Hom, Executive Director of Human Rights in China (HRIC). “Can such a group be a stabilizing force in building a ‘harmonious’ region?”

In a whitepaper released in March 2011, Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights: The Impact of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, HRIC has documented and analyzed the serious human rights implications of the SCO counter-terrorism policies and practices. As the SCO deepens its regional cooperation and expands its territorial influence, its human rights impact will clearly worsen if no meaningful steps are taken to integrate human rights standards and compliance into its policies and practices.

The SCO counter-terrorism framework is built on a foundation of non-compliance with international human rights norms and standards, including standards on procedural protections afforded to asylum seekers and due process requirements for extraditions. Modeled on the Chinese doctrine of the “Three Evil Forces” of terrorism, separatism, and extremism – largely a political instrument used by the Chinese authorities to target its “problem” populations, such as ethnic Uyghurs and Tibetans – this overbroad and politicized framework has developed to include even thought and ideology as targets. This approach is made clear in a passage in the Astana Declaration released at the close of the summit, which emphasizes preventing thought rather than terrorist action: “Taking into account the international situation and the trend of development of various threats, it is necessary to establish without delay the political, social, and other conditions that prevent the spread of extremist thought and the promotion of terrorism.” (考虑到国际形势及各种威胁的发展态势,应该刻不容缓地建立阻止极端主义思潮泛滥和宣扬恐怖主义的政治、社会和其他条件。)

This is a critical juncture in the evolution of the SCO. Originally created by China to forge cooperation with its neighboring states in maintaining stability in the restive Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), the SCO has acquired a luster of respectability in the international community. Notably, the United Nations has uncritically welcomed the SCO as a partner in counter-terrorism and in working toward “common peace, security, and prosperity,” and is enthusiastically increasing cooperation with the SCO in various security efforts. Recently, in a disturbing development, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announced that it is preparing to sign a protocol on cooperation with the SCO Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS),1 an apparatus that employs questionable practices. RATS coordinates counter-terrorism operations and intelligence exchange among SCO member states, and maintains a database and blacklists on individuals and groups identified as linked to terrorism, separatism, and extremism. Intelligence cooperation through RATS has been described by the UN Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism as “not subject to any meaningful form of oversight,” with “no human rights safeguards attached to data and information sharing.”2

The increasing cooperation between the UN and the SCO has the potential to undermine the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, which emphasizes respect for human rights and rule of law as a fundamental pillar for effective and sustainable counter-terrorism efforts. HRIC urges UN bodies to address the human rights pillar of the Strategy, and integrate implementation of respect for human rights and the rule of law into any mechanisms for cooperation with the SCO.

As the SCO is poised for expansion (India, Iran, and Pakistan are seeking full SCO membership, and Afghanistan is seeking observer status), HRIC also urges all states currently negotiating for SCO membership to fully assess the trade-offs required by SCO participation, particularly those that undermine democratic values and the fulfillment of international human rights obligations.


1. “SCO and UN agreed on cooperation in countering terrorism,” Tengri News, June 14, 2011, ^

2. U.N. Human Rights Council, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism,” U.N. Doc. A/HRC/10/3 (2009) (Special Rapporteur, Martin Scheinin) at para. 35, ^

For more information on the human rights impact of the SCO, see:

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