The Dubious Agenda of the SCO

The Dubious Agenda of the SCO

The international community must take a long, hard look at the SCO before giving it the nod of approval.


During the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s recent “Jubilee” summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, the leaders of its six member states pledged to expand cooperation in politics, security, economy and cultural exchanges. What does this mean for American interests?

The SCO started out as a modest enterprise, created by China to enlist neighboring states’ cooperation in maintaining stability in the troubled Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of northwestern China. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan agreed to work with Beijing to prevent the cross-border populations of ethnic Uighurs from mobilizing to challenge Chinese rule. In turn, they gained China’s cooperation in opposing their own ethnic and Islamist movements. Russia found the SCO useful because it provided a cooperative rather than competitive framework for the extension of Chinese influence in the region, reducing Moscow’s fear that Beijing might try to challenge its primary role.


Since its founding, the SCO has taken off in surprising ways. It has helped China compete with U.S. interests for oil-field development rights and the construction of natural-gas pipelines. Trade, investment and transportation links have grown rapidly, making China a high-ranking partner of most of the Central Asian republics. China’s investment in the SCO appears to have paid unexpected dividends; it has allowed Beijing to project its diplomatic power not only within the region but also in international fora, and it has contributed to China’s international respectability. The SCO has four observer nations (India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan), two dialogue partners (Belarus and Sri Lanka) and three guest members (Afghanistan, the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations)—of these, three of the most powerful and strategically important are clamoring for full membership (India, Iran and Pakistan).

Most significantly, the SCO has developed a unique infrastructure for security cooperation whose practices have major, and hitherto unexamined, implications for global norms on antiterrorism—and they are not for the better.

The SCO’s military and law-enforcement cooperation and joint exercises have grown significantly over the years. In October 2002, several hundred Chinese and Kyrgyz soldiers conducted a bilateral counterterrorism exercise on Kyrgyz soil while observers from other SCO member states looked on. It was China’s first joint exercise with another country in decades. The following year, Beijing conducted its first multinational military exercise on Chinese territory. More than a thousand Chinese and Kyrgyz troops participated under the watchful eyes of China’s minister of national defense as well as Russian, Kazakh and Tajik observers. Bilateral Sino-Russian and multilateral SCO military exercises also occurred in 2005 and 2007, supposedly directed against terrorists. Such exercises build trust and facilitate communication among regional militaries. But they also send an intimidating signal to activists who might be inclined to challenge existing regimes.

SCO “counterterrorism” measures are not confined to terrorism alone. Instead, various organizational agreements require member states to target so-called “separatists” and “extremists” (religious fundamentalists) whether or not they use violence. Member states are obliged by treaty to honor each other’s blacklists of individuals and organizations accused of terrorism, separatism or extremism without conducting any independent inquiry, violating international norms against refoulement. A Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) based in Tashkent operates a sophisticated database accessible to all member-state security organs to facilitate security and intelligence cooperation. The blacklist contains at least 42 organizations and over 1100 individuals. SCO member states have agreed to extradite, and prevent the granting of refugee status to, individuals who are flagged by any member state as a terrorist, separatist or extremist threat.

In the end, what this means is SCO has contributed to major human-rights abuses against the member states’ own citizens and is undermining the international counterterrorism framework as a whole. Human Rights in China has examined the implications of this in its white paper Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights: The Impact of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. And yet the UN has uncritically welcomed the SCO. It has been granted observer status at the UN General Assembly. The General Assembly has adopted resolutions on cooperation with the SCO. And the UN and SCO secretariats have issued a joint declaration on cooperation. The SCO and RATS have embedded themselves in a number of international-security and development initiatives.

The SCO requires greater scrutiny, precisely because it is attempting to sell itself as a respectable regional body that can provide “insider access” to so many regional power players. The article by Julie Boland, “Engaging the Anti-NATO,” falls into this trap, as it neglects to explore how engagement with the SCO is likely to strengthen its ability to shield member states’ domestic abuses from criticism and promote their problematic agendas. For example, Ms. Boland asserts that SCO member states Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan “represent the best hopes in years for more representative governments in the region.” Yet both of these states violated their international human-rights obligations by prioritizing SCO commitments in the run-up to the Jubilee Summit. Officials in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan obstructed Uighur leaders and activists in those countries from traveling to attend a Uighur-rights conference in Washington, D.C., in early May. In Kyrgyzstan, two of those activists were told that taking the trip would “harm Sino-Kyrgyz relations.” In the past two weeks, Kazakhstan has extradited at least 29 asylum seekers to their respective SCO member states of origin, in violation of the principle of non-refoulement. Kazakhstan returned Ershidin Israil, an ethnic Uighur, to China on May 30, and at least 28 ethnic Uzbeks to Uzbekistan on June 9. The international community cannot dignify such practices as representing the best hopes for the region.

What the SCO now seeks is greater worldwide recognition, which will increase its legitimacy and, as a result, enhance the influence and agendas of its member states, particularly China. Accordingly, engagement with the SCO cannot be freely given. It must be conditioned on genuine transparency and accountability for human-rights violations, with clear benchmarks for progress. Otherwise, the SCO’s next ten years are likely to reveal even worse surprises.