Spotlight on Kazakhstan: progress needed to fulfill President’s human rights promise

As the first global initiative to track the human rights performances of countries, the Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI) provides both civil and political rights and economic and social rights scores for Kazakhstan, and many other countries. All our data are available on our Rights Tracker. Read about our research credentials here.

This country spotlight refers to data published in 2020. 

A president’s promise

In 2019, Kazakhstan’s newly inaugurated president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev committed to ‘protect the rights of every citizen.’

Citing his promises, Human Rights Watch penned an open letter to Tokayev, raising several key areas of concern that he must address in order to fulfil this goal. These included:

  • election interference
  • restrictions on freedom of assembly, and
  • restrictions on free speech – including excessively broad criminal laws used against civil society.

The 2020 Country Report on Kazakhstan contains an overall positive score for quality of life, but also some strikingly poor results, particularly in terms of who is most at risk of rights abuses. Of 13 rights measured, Kazakhstan’s scores only put it in the top ‘good’ category for the right to work. HRMI’s human rights scores for Kazakhstan confirm that these are still areas of real concern, as many citizens are not enjoying their fundamental human rights.

The civil and political rights data, and the people at risk responses, were collected as the Covid-19 pandemic was beginning to sweep the world.

The economic and social rights data are based on figures from international databases and score every year 2007-2017.

What do HRMI’s data show?

Below is an overview of HRMI’s human rights report for Kazakhstan, as seen on our Rights Tracker:

Kazakhstan scored poorly for civil and political rights, with a very low 2.5/10 for empowerment rights, and 5.4/10 for safety from the state.

There is an urgent need for Tokayev to fulfil his promise by drastically improving respect for civil and political rights in Kazakhstan, particularly empowerment rights. These include the rights to assembly and association, opinion and expression, and participation in government.

At 86.5%, Kazakhstan also has much room to improve in quality of life rights. These are the rights to health, housing, food, work, and education.

The labels on the graphs of good, fair, bad, and very bad are used here to give a general indication of how to understand the scores. They are NOT comprehensive descriptions of a country’s performance on an individual right.

Civil and political rights

Empowerment rights 

Kazakhstan’s combined empowerment score of 2.5/10, shown above, suggests that a large number of people are not enjoying their civil liberties and political freedoms.

The individual scores for freedom of speech, assembly and association, and the right to participate in government are shown in the graph below:

How well is Kazakhstan’s government respecting each right?

Kazakhstan needs to make major improvements in all three areas.

Right to assembly and association

Kazakhstan scored 2.1/10 for the right to assembly and association, as shown in the graph above.

The graph below compares Kazakhstan’s score with the scores of 28 other countries from around the world.

The right to assembly and association scores are presented here with uncertainty bands, showing the credible range of scores, similar to the ‘margin of error’ in opinion polls. Because the uncertainty bands for Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia overlap, Kazakhstan could in fact be performing worse than Saudi Arabia for the right to assembly and association.

What’s certain is that Kazakhstan is performing among the very worst of the 29 countries HRMI collected assembly and association data for in 2019.

We asked our expert survey respondents which groups of people they thought were at risk of having their right to assembly and association violated.

The following word cloud represents their answers.

Note: The bigger the text, the greater the number of human rights experts who identified that group as at risk.

This word cloud shows that 38% of our human rights experts thought that everyone in Kazakhstan is at real risk of having their right to assembly and association violated.

Additionally, 86% of our human rights experts identified people engaged in or suspected of political violence as being at risk of having this right violated, while 79% identified journalists, and 45% identified people who protest or engage in non-violent political activity as being at risk of having this right violated.

This is in line with Human Rights Watch‘s finding that ‘Kazakh authorities routinely deny permits for peaceful protests against government policies. Police break up even single-person unauthorized protests, and arbitrarily detain organizers and participants,’ and that ‘in recent years there has been a concerted government crackdown on the independent trade union movement in Kazakhstan.’

Right to opinion and expression

Kazakhstan scores 2.2/10 for the right to opinion and expression.

Experts identified many groups as being at risk of having this right violated:

These responses show that human rights activists are at a particular risk of having their right to free speech violated. Additionally, 83% of experts identified journalists as being at risk of having this right violated, while 59% identified members of labour unions as being at risk.

In total, there were 31 groups of people identified by human rights experts as being at risk of having their right to opinion and expression violated.

Disturbingly, 34% of experts said ‘all people’ were at risk.

Reporters Without Borders ranked Kazakhstan 157th in the world out of 180 nations in its World Press Freedom Index. In explaining the score, Reporters Without Borders raised concerns about the banning of opposition newspapers in 2013, and the targeting of newspapers that express even a small amount of criticism of the government. Accordingly, they wrote, ‘it is high time to dispense with this heritage of censorship.’

Other groups commonly identified by our experts as at risk of having their right to opinion and expression violated are:

  • People engaged in or suspected of political violence (86%)
  • People who protest or engage in non-violent political activity (38%)
  • People with particular religious beliefs or practices (34%)
  • People with low social or economic status (24%)

This confirms that there are substantial restrictions on the ability of citizens to freely disseminate and access information.

Right to participate in government

Kazakhstan scores 2.3/10 for the right to participate in government.

This score has gone down slightly from the previous year, but has improved since 2017, as shown in this graph below:

Safety from the state

HRMI’s ‘safety from the state’ category is for physical integrity rights.

Kazakhstan’s safety from the state score of 5.4/10 suggests that a significant number of people are not safe from all of the following: arbitrary arrest, torture, disappearance, or extrajudicial killing. Although Kazakhstan scores higher here than for empowerment rights, these clearly indicate that Kazakhstan needs to improve respect for all four of these physical integrity rights.

In December 2019 Tokayev stated that he had instructed the Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs to start procedures to abolish the death penalty in the country. In 2003, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first president of Kazakhstan, introduced a moratorium on the death penalty, except for fatal acts of terrorism or ‘especially grave’ war crimes. Life imprisonment has been adopted as an alternative punishment to execution since 2004.

Troubling levels of torture and ill-treatment in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan’s score on the right to freedom from torture is a low 2.8 out of 10 and shows no improvement over the last three years.

Immigrants, journalists and people engaged in or suspected of political violence were identified as being particularly affected.

Freedom from arbitrary arrest and freedom from torture both scored particularly poorly, at 1.9/10 and 2.8/10 respectively.

The graph below shows safety from the state scores since 2017:

Many groups were identified by a large percentage of experts as being at risk of arbitrary arrest:

People engaged in or suspected of political violence were identified by 83% of experts as at risk of being arbitrarily arrested. Similarly, 59% of experts identified members of labour unions and 48% identified human rights advocates as being especially vulnerable to arbitrary or political arrest and detention by government agents in 2019.

Quality of Life rights

The Quality of Life score is a measure of how well a country uses its wealth to ensure people’s rights to food, education, health, housing and work are met. The score is produced by using data from international databases, and measuring outcomes against a country’s income level.

HRMI co-founder and Economic and Social Rights Lead Dr Susan Randolph explains that, ‘Kazakhstan’s income adjusted Quality of Life score of 86.5% implies that with the resources it has, Kazakhstan can do more than it currently is to ensure its people enjoy their economic and social rights. As such, it has a long way to go to meet its obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.’

Dr Randolph points out that, ‘Kazakhstan turns in its best performance on the right to work, scoring 99.2% of what should be possible given its resources. This puts Kazakhstan’s income-adjusted score in the top quarter of all countries in our sample. However, the lower rights scores in the areas of education, food, health, and housing suggest that Kazakhstan could be using its wealth more effectively to improve people’s lives in these areas.’

HRMI produces two quality of life scores for each country, each score measuring against a different benchmark.

The global best benchmark scores all countries against the same high standard. By adjusting for a country’s income, HRMI also scores countries against the level they could be expected to be performing at, given their income level. This is the income adjusted benchmark.

The income adjusted benchmark is a ground-breaking tool which uses the SERF Index methodology, developed by HRMI co-founder Susan Randolph and her colleagues Sakiko Fukuda-Parr and Terra Lawson-Remer. It best measures how well countries are upholding their obligations under international law because under Article 2 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), each country is obligated to progressively achieve economic and social rights “to the maximum of its available resources.”

In the graph below, the income adjusted benchmark has been selected.

Kazakhstan performs well on right to work, but other social and economic rights suffer

Kazakhstan has a score of 99.2% for the right to work, which includes consideration of unemployment and poverty. This puts Kazakhstan in the top quarter of all countries we produce data for. This score takes into account Kazakhstan’s resources and how well it is using them to make sure its people’s quality of life rights are fulfilled.

However, for the rights to education, health, food, and housing, Kazakhstan’s scores fall in the ‘bad’ or ‘fair’ ranges, indicating that Kazakhstan has an urgent need to improve people’s lives in these areas, and could afford to do so without an increase in GDP.


This score tells us that Kazakhstan is only doing 86.5% of what should be possible right now with the resources it has. Since anything less than 100% indicates that a country is not meeting its current duty under international human rights law, our assessment is that Kazakhstan has some way to go to meet its immediate economic and social rights duty.

Kazakhstan’s lowest quality of life score is for the right to education, at 77.4%. Experts identified homeless people and people with low social or economic status as being most at risk for violation of their rights to education, food, health, and housing

The good news is that Kazakhstan has been increasing its quality of life score since at least 2007, as show by the graph below.

The design of the SERF Index methodology means HRMI’s data allow the comparison of countries’ scores. You can compare Kazakhstan’s economic and social rights scores to those of other countries, including for the right to education, the right to food, the right to health, the right to housing, and the right to work.

When asked to provide more context about who was least likely enjoy their economic and social rights in 2019, our respondents mentioned all of the following:

  • Street children or homeless youth
  • People who are homeless
  • People with low social or economic status
  • Immigrants
  • Refugees or asylum seekers
  • Children
  • Indigenous people
  • People who protest or engage in non-violent political activity (civil activists)
  • People of particular nationalities (China and Mongolia)
  • Individuals repatriating back into country
  • Older people
  • People with disabilities
  • Detainees or those accused of crimes
  • People in particular geographic locations (Alma-Ata region; rural areas such as the Aral Sea, Mangistau, and Yersai regions; people living in smaller towns)
  • Stateless people
  • People in state institutions (e.g. hospital, prisons, schools)
  • LGBTQIA+ people
  • Members of labour unions (and independent trade unions)
  • Women and/or girls

See our Rights Tracker for more information on who was identified as being at risk for each quality of life right.

Summary of Kazakhstan’s human rights performance

Our data show that Kazakhstan has a long way to go before its people can have full enjoyment of their civil and political rights.

Several groups of people were consistently identified by high numbers of our experts as being at risk of having these rights violated, including:

  • People engaged in or suspected of political violence
  • People who are homeless
  • Journalists
  • Human rights advocates

Furthermore, all people were frequently identified as being at risk.

Our data also show that Kazakhstan is not meeting its quality of life rights obligations under international law.

It is clear that there is much work ahead for President Tokayev if he is to keep his promise of protecting the rights of all citizens of Kazakhstan; a promise which urgently needs to come to fruition.

Thanks for your interest in HRMI. To further explore our human rights data for Kazakhstan, please visit our Rights Tracker, where you can find data by country or right.

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