The European Union's Central Asia Ministerial meeting took place in Tashkent on April 7, Europa House, the European Commission's office in Uzbekistan reported. Vice-Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Elyor Ganiev represented Uzbekistan, and the foreign ministers of Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan and the deputy foreign minister of Kazakhstan took part. Mindful of the need to relieve itself of dependency on Russian energy and concerned about the spillover from the war in Afghanistan and its impact on regional security, the EU established its Strategy for a New Partnership with Central Asia in 2007, and the talks took place within this framework. The ministers addressed energy, the environment, water resources, border management and combating drug trafficking. The Afghan situation and other regional security issues were discussed under the broad rubrics of "terrorism" and "extremism" although nothing more specific was said.
As for human rights, when European Commission President José Manuel Barroso met with Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov in Brussels in January, he had openly mentioned topics like forced child labor in Uzbekistan and the need to permit a mission from the International Labor Organization to enter the country. He also raised Uzbekistan’s failure to accredit Human Rights Watch staff. In Tashkent, the EU was more reticent and only made a broad statement about the "importance of constructive engagement on questions of democratization, human rights and the rule of law" and that "a strong civil society constitutes an integral part of democracy development." Some talks took place between Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi (Hungary is currently president of the EU) and Uzbek officials, but no statements were issued on the substance.
Such independent civil society groups as still exist in Uzbekistan were mixed in their assessment of the EU's initiative and greater presence in their country. Surat Ikramov, head of the Initiative Group of Independent Rights Defenders, told News Briefing Central Asia (NBCA) that the EU office could serve as a channel for more first-hand information about the situation in Uzbekistan.
“To date, the EU has had to rely on the resources of other international organizations,” NBCA quoted him as saying. “In the conditions here, it’s quite difficult to obtain the accurate information needed to assess the domestic political and economic situation.” Abdurahman Tashanov, a member of Ezgulik, another human rights group, said the mission should make it easier for EU officials to raise concerns with their Uzbek counterparts.
While that may prove the case, the Expert Working Group, an organization of lawyers and human rights advocates in Uzbekistan, complained about the closed-door talks between the EU and officials of their country. They said that neither they nor the non-governmental groups of the EU had any access to this process. The EU selected topics like energy, security, and economic cooperation that would not antagonize their hosts, and if they raised any human rights concerns in the "constructive dialogue," it was not publicized. While the EU provides funding for some civil society projects, the groups are carefully vetted by the Uzbek government and are under their control, and the issues they can work on correspond to official ideology. Most independent human rights groups have not been able to obtain official registration in Uzbekistan, so they can't have access to EU aid programs.
"Ignoring the voices of the few but committed local independent civil society activists could be a mistake for the EU, as these activists are in fact a reliable barometer of the policies of the Uzbek authorities," EWG said in a statement distributed April 9.
The US State Department released its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, again classifying Uzbekistan as an "authoritarian" country. Uzbekistan was singled out in the introduction of the report among the world's most egregious violators of human rights in the world, along with countries like Columbia, Cuba, Cote d'Ivoire, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Belarus. Political prisoners, torture, harassment of journalists and human rights activists, unjust defamation cases, control of NGOs and Muslim religious groups, and forced adult and child labor in the cotton harvest were all mentioned in the chapter on Uzbekistan.
While US officials, in re-establishing warmer relations with Tashkent in recent years, have dropped their call for an independent inquiry into the Andijan massacre of 2005, the Country Reports still mention that the government blocked such an inquiry. Like the EU, US officials have kept to a policy "constructive engagement" with Uzbekistan, but the Country Report still makes the definitive statements about severe human rights problems that are not accomplished by quiet diplomacy.
Steve Swerdlow, a researcher of Human Rights Watch (HRW) who attempted unsuccessfully to gain accreditation in Uzbekistan before HRW was ultimately closed by authorities, published an op-ed piece in the New York Times where he exposed as hollow the Uzbek government's claims that it has instituted habeas corpus reforms. "Habeas corpus — judicial review of detention — is considered a crucial bulwark against torture in pretrial detention, but true habeas corpus exists neither in theory nor in practice in Uzbekistan," said Swerdlow.
While the EU and US have pulled their punches on Uzbekistan, Al Jazeera, the Qatar-owned TV station that has gained prominence for its coverage of the revolutions in the Middle East, aired a program on the plight of Uzbek exiles abroad March 30. "Cruel but Not Unusual," a report by Simon Ostrovsky for the show "People and Power" describes the difficulties of Uzbek refugees forced to flee persecution at home. Al Jazeera chronicles the story of 29 Uzbeks in Kazakhstan, who were arrested by Kazakh authorities on suspicions of terrorism and are facing deportation back to certain torture in Uzbekistan. The video contains moving testimony from a woman tortured in Uzbekistan for information about her husband and son-in-law, who died in detention, the difficulties she and other asylum-seekers face after fleeing to Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan has already sent back four Uzbek refugees, one of whom was handed a 10-year prison sentence and three of whom have disappeared.
Eight leaders from business, labor, and human rights organizations met with Ambassador Ilhom Nematov, Uzbekistan’s envoy to the US, on March 11 in Washington, DC to express their concerns about the continued use of forced child labor in the cotton industry in Uzbekistan. The group included representatives from the National Retail Federation and the American Apparel & Footwear Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), Calvert Asset Management, Global Works Foundation, the International Labor Rights Forum, and Open Society Foundations. (EurasiaNet is funded by the Open Society Foundations under the auspices of its Central Eurasia Project—ed.) They urged Uzbekistan to issue an invitation to the International Labor Organization to visit Uzbekistan during the cotton harvest.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick compiles the Uzbekistan weekly roundup for EurasiaNet. She is also editor of EurasiaNet's Choihona blog. To subscribe to Uzbekistan News Briefs, a weekly digest of international and regional press, write firstname.lastname@example.org