Respected Rector, thank you for your warm introduction. Honoured representatives of the government, parliament, and civil society, respected members of the diplomatic community and dear students.
It is an honour for me to be here today at the Law Academy of the Kyrgyz Republic.
It is a pleasure to be here in Bishkek for the first time, and an honour to be speaking to such distinguished guests and the men and women who will be the future of the legal profession in Kyrgyzstan.
My visit here reflects the wish of the UK government to strengthen and deepen bilateral relations with Kyrgyzstan. It follows the decision to open a British Embassy here in 2012, which has helped to foster closer links and is delivering a range of activities to bring benefit to the people of Kyrgyzstan.
I have chosen Kyrgyzstan as one of the first countries to visit since becoming Minister of State in January as I know the importance of judicial matters in the bilateral dialogue. One of my key objectives is to promote a better understanding of how the UK justice system works. The other is to confirm UK support for the ambitious reform plans for the Kyrgyz system and to gauge first-hand how these are progressing.
So let me start with a few words of explanation about how the UK system works.
I am very proud of Britain’s distinguished and rich legal heritage. We are fast approaching the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta: in 1215 King John attached his Royal Seal to Magna Carta, a document with real and symbolic resonance not just for Britain, but throughout the world. It established clearly for the first time the right of citizen against the right of state.
The Magna Carta was the first general statement of rights in England, and three clauses remain in force today. One defends the freedom and rights of the English church, another confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns, but the third, the “golden passage” is the most famous (clauses 39 and 40 in the 1215 original):
No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, nor will we proceed with force against him, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.
When, in 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt launched the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, she called it a Magna Carta for all mankind – and there was no need for simultaneous translation for the world to know what she meant.
The lessons of Magna Carta down the centuries show that in the absence of those same elements I just mentioned – clear rules, widely understood and properly enforced – people are not secure or free, but are subject to arbitrary power. I am sure this sentiment resonates in Kyrgyzstan just as it does in the UK.
I am sure also that you will agree that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. There is no room for complacency. We should always look to reform our system in order to ensure that it works for the public. It is an ongoing process.
Over the years we have adapted and improved our legislation to reflect changing circumstances. Recent improvements to our legal framework include reforms to our bribery legislation – and I know the British Embassy here outlined those changes in a major conference here in 2013. We’ve also changed our law on defamation to make sure we strike a balance between the right of someone to protect their reputation and another important right – freedom of expression.
Since the Magna Carta was signed 800 years ago, we have made many new commitments under international covenants and conventions such as the UN ICCPR. These, alongside domestic law, dictate how we ensure the delivery of justice and uphold human rights both domestically and in the international arena.
These are our guide when we consider judicial cooperation with international partners. We are bound by our laws to assess the quality of their justice systems and their willingness and ability to safeguard human rights. We have to look at whether the judiciary is truly impartial and independent; whether law enforcement agencies observe accepted standards; whether there is guaranteed access to a fair trial regardless of one’s race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation or political opinions; whether prison conditions are adequate; whether corruption risks undermining the delivery of true justice.
If there are doubts, we cannot agree to cooperation. By acting in breach of our domestic and international commitments, we would be exposing ourselves to legal challenge domestically and as a matter of international law. Making the wrong decisions could carry a high cost – and not only to our finances, but also to our reputation.
The UK’s reputation for high standards of fairness and justice brings with it high expectations of our partners around the world. And I know that nowhere is this more relevant than in the Kyrgyz Republic. And I understand why.
I’d like to take this opportunity here in Bishkek to say that the UK government fully appreciates the sensitivities surrounding the painful events of 2010 and the strong wish to bring those responsible to justice.
I would also like to acknowledge the remarkable steps taken by the Kyrgyz authorities and people over the last four years to set this beautiful country on the path to democracy, stability and prosperity. You have set yourselves an ambitious agenda to create in a few short years what we in the UK have developed over centuries. You have already achieved a great deal in a short time.
And I have heard in my discussions with the key architects of reform here that there is a strong will to complete this huge and complex challenge. I admire the dedication of those striving to reform the Kyrgyz justice system, embedding principles of fairness and human rights, for the benefit of all.
Let me close by saying that the UK fully supports your aspirations and stands ready to provide practical advice and support along the way. I am delighted that the bilateral Criminal Justice Dialogue has brought together experts from our two countries to exchange views and develop mutual understanding. The UK government will continue to promote this dialogue. And we are keen to offer further assistance in helping you to reform your justice system to meet the expectations of your international partners, but even more importantly, to safeguard the rights and freedoms of the citizens of the Kyrgyz Republic.