Breaking Through Politics and Building Trust in Central Asia

Interview with Baroness Stern of Vauxhall


I meet Baroness Stern at the entrance to the House of Lords. It is a sunny Friday afternoon and the tourist masses are crowding the pavements taking photos of the UK’s historic parliament. The House of Lords is the UK’s Upper House of parliament that oversees and scrutinises the bills and policies introduced by the ruling government in the House of Commons. As we walk through the “corridors of power” before the interview, it is eerily silent. The Upper House is not sitting, many of the MPs in the Lower House are busy canvassing votes in the Scottish independence referendum and it is as though we have the place to ourselves.

We start by discussing Baroness Stern’s introduction to this age-old institution of British politics. “Coming to the House of Lords is an interesting political way of doing things,” she begins. “I should start off by saying straight away, that I am not connected with a political party, I was appointed as an independent.” In 1999 Stern received an unexpected letter from the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, saying he was thinking of recommending to Her Majesty the Queen that Stern should become a member of the House of Lords. “So I thought about it,” she continues, “and I wrote back to Mr Blair saying I was very honoured to accept. I became a member in July 1999 and I’ve been here ever since. The House of Lords is not a job, it’s a public appointment for which one’s not paid. We have expenses paid so that we can have, perhaps, somebody to do our research and so on, but,  basically, it’s not paid.”

Stern’s professional background and research has largely been developed from working in criminal justice reform, human rights and broader questions about the development of peaceful and safe societies. It was this work that formed the basis of her appointment as a life peer. She has authored a number of books on these subjects and has honorary doctorates from several UK universities as well as being an Honorary Fellow of the London School of Economics. It is intriguing, given her background, that she has come into contact with Central Asia. “I have been very fortunate in that I’ve had quite a lot of contact with Central Asia since 1992, when I first went to Kazakhstan. Since then I have visited many of the countries over the years and had many opportunities to meet people and learn more about that part of the world.”

One of Baroness Stern’s major interests that resulted from her contact has been in Tajikistan and she is currently the chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tajikistan. These groups are usually set up by members who have a particular interest and try to put party politics to one side in the pursuit of improving or developing the issue, whether it is national, international or across a range of services and sectors.

“I am the chair of the group in this Parliament of members of both Houses, who are particularly interested in Tajikistan and who want to strengthen our relationships with the country. The relationship is basically with the Parliament of Tajikistan, but, obviously, we also have relationships with the Government and with other parts of civil society. The whole idea is that a group of parliamentarians should take an interest and attempt to visit and meet people from Tajikistan so we can learn more about the country and help our Government to give it more of a priority.

“Our main aim is to create trust and friendship between the two Parliaments and the two countries, because the more we get to know each other and the more we trust each other,
then the more possible it is for us to cooperate across a whole range of matters.”

I ask her for a recent example of progress being made. “I was in Tajikistan this year and had a long meeting with the Foreign Minister, Mr. Aslov. We discussed the British Government initiative on sexual violence in war, and he was very interested. I suggested to him that he might want to join and sign with the other countries that want to stamp out this terrible crime. He agreed and so, as a parliamentary group we were able to bring the two countries together about a matter that affects everybody in the world where war is going on.”

Given Tajikistan’s recent civil war, this is clearly an area that is relevant. “They have a lot to teach us,” Stern adds. “And a lot we can learn from their really terrible experiences. Those sort of discussions are very helpful for us, because that’s not something we know at first hand.”

And what of ties beyond politics? “I think the economic ties are a very important part. We had a very interesting meeting here with an expert who spoke to us about the energy possibilities for electricity generation and other elements of the economic development in Tajikistan. It was very warmly welcomed by people here and the discussions that started, have continued.There’s also huge potential for tourism in Tajikistan. It is so outstandingly beautiful and unspoilt; something, that people who don’t know about it, will be so delighted to see.”

Previous issues of Open Central Asia have covered the dilemma between the independent Central Asian states that are energy-rich (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) and those that are water-rich (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) and how resources are shared. Stern is no stranger to this debate: “I am not the expert on this,” she says, “but I know that the Government through the Department of International Development is very interested in discussions about how the different sorts of energy wealth and resource wealth can be distributed so that the standard of living is raised for all the people in that region. Of course, there are disparities between Kazakhstan and, say, Tajikistan. Tajikistan is quite poor in terms of world incomes, and Kazakhstan is doing quite well but there should be scope for improving the living standards in Tajikistan.”

Moving into something that is a bit closer to home, we discuss Baroness Stern’s visit to Kazakhstan earlier in the year to speak on penal reform. “My visit to Kazakhstan was very
interesting and rewarding,” she starts passionately. “There’s a lot of good work going on to look at the laws, to bring them up to date. I would start by mentioning Kazakhstan’s position on the death penalty. They’ve not abolished it, but it is not in use currently and they have a moratorium on this, so I think, that the international community should want to congratulate them on that. There’s a lot of work that’s gone into reducing the number of people in prison too that has brought the proportion of people in prison per 100,000 of the population down from 400 to 260. It’s a very big reduction.”

I venture the conversation into the conditions in Kazakh prisons and the comparison with the UK. “The conditions in prisons are still quite problematic,” she concedes. “Recently there was a riot in a prison, and we read about prisoners injuring themselves in order to draw attention to the prison conditions. On that front, as in many countries, there’s still a great deal of work to be done, but, of course, reducing the number of people in prison is a very good step towards that, because if you have fewer people to look after, you can provide them with better conditions. There is a standard that applies to everyone in the world, that everyone in prison should be treated with humanity, with respect, their health should be protected, life should be protected, and relationships with the family should be maintained. That applies to everybody, in every culture, in every part of the world.”

The next challenge is how to rehabilitate offenders, and Stern agrees that Kazakhstan has yet to make great progress in that area. “But it is being discussed a lot,” she counters. “There are a lot of groups and NGOs who would like to see more done, because it’s for the benefit of society if people who come out of prison don’t commit more crimes. I would like to see that being developed, and I hope it will be.”

I finish by asking Baroness Stern to recall a favourite memory from one of her visits and her eyes light up as she does so. “A visit to central Asian countries is always something that you come back thinking, ‘I really enjoyed that.’ The people you meet are so friendly, friendship is a common value that everyone supposes and believes in. Everyone is overwhelmed with friendship and hospitality. The last time I went to Tajikistan, I had a particularly wonderful experience when I went to visit a project for women to help them make something of their lives, especially in a world in which many of the husbands have gone to Russia to work. The women are on their own bringing up the children and it’s up to them whether they have a decent life or not. Here the women had organised  themselves, created communities, pooled their money and started really doing the things that matter: improving the healthcare, improving their cultural life, supporting each other.

“And when I went to meet them, they greeted me with huge friendship. I went and looked at their fields, their agriculture and their children,” she trails off, lost in the memory, before concluding, “And I thought, as I`ve always thought, that women in Central Asia are amazing: strong, effective, powerful, much to be respected. I was glad to have that confirmed by that very, very enjoyable visit.”

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