When Human Rights Watch announced that they had been kicked out of Uzbekistan earlier this week, the director of the organization's office in Tashkent, Steve Swerdlow, invoked the U.S.'s growing military relationship with Uzbekistan:
"Uzbekistan is increasingly playing a strategic role in the war in Afghanistan," Swerdlow says. "For that reason, NATO and Germany, which has an air base in Uzbekistan now, and the United States, which is using what is known as the northern distribution network to route these supplies, and the EU, have been increasingly warming ties with Uzbekistan and engaging with the government."
Swerdlow calls on the international community, in particular the United States and the European Union, to condemn Uzbekistan's actions in regard to HRW and overall human rights issues in the country.
(As an aside: This news seemed to make a bigger splash in the wider media than any story from Uzbekistan in some time. Why does it make so much more news when an international human rights organization is kicked out than when, say, actual human rights violations happen?)
The relationship between U.S.-backed human rights advocates and U.S.-Uzbekistan military cooperation is naturally fraught, as Uzbekistan is one of the most repressive governments on the planet, and the U.S. faces at least some pressure to make note of that. The Guardian has reported, citing a U.S. diplomatic cable, that Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, has explicitly threatened to shut down the Northern Distribution Network, over Washington's support for an Uzbekistan human rights campaigner. (The cable still hasn't been released.)
[T]he dictatorial president recently flew into a rage because the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, presented a Women of Courage award in Washington to a newly released Uzbek human rights campaigner, Mutabar Tadjibayeva.
Karimov's displeasure was conveyed in "icy tones", which alarmed the embassy: "We have a number of important issues on the table right now, including the Afghanistan transit (NDN) framework."
On 18 March 2009, the US ambassador, Richard Norland, submitted to a personal tongue-lashing from Karimov with an "implicit threat to suspend transit of cargo for US forces in Afghanistan via the Northern Distribution Network".
Norland claimed to have calmed Karimov down on that occasion, but warned Washington: "Clearly, pressuring him (especially publicly) could cost us transit."
(Incidentally, Tadjibayeva made the news again recently when she publicly rejected the prize in protest of it being given this year to Kyrgyzstan President Roza Otunbayeva, whom Tadjibayeva holds responsible for the anti-Uzbek pogroms that took place in southern Kyrgyzstan last year.)
So the U.S. has to walk a tightrope between what HRW and its constituency wants -- lots of pressure on human rights -- and what Karimov wants -- nothing said about human rights. And so it was interesting to see how the U.S. State Department describes its proposed military aid package to Uzbekistan in the recently released budget justification documents (pdf):
U.S. security assistance to Uzbekistan is limited because the Secretary of State has been unable to determine, as required by Congress, that Uzbekistan has made progress on commitments to reform included in the 2002 United States-Uzbekistan Declaration on the Strategic Partnership and Cooperation Framework. However, the United States continues limited cooperation in the interest of its national security to address transnational threats...
Foreign Military Financing (FMF): These funds will be used to provide non-lethal equipment to help the Uzbek military protect U.S. military cargo transiting Uzbekistan on its way to Afghanistan.
International Military Education and Training (IMET): Funds will support training for Uzbek military officers focused on human rights, civilian control of the military, and other subjects related to the proper role of a military in a democratic society. Courses will provide training on international human-rights standards, civilian control of the military, and other non-lethal subject matter as part of an expanded IMET program.
"Non-lethal... human rights...non-lethal... human rights..." It almost sounds like the Peace Corps! (Except that the Peace Corps was kicked out of Uzbekistan, too,) But this document is published for a Washington audience. I suspect the tone is different in the conversations between Karimov and the CENTCOM officials he talk to.