We write to express our profound dismay and concern about the decision to award Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov with UNESCO’s Borobudur Gold Medal last week.
Rewarding President Karimov with any prize or other form of positive endorsement in the face of his government’s serious violations of human rights and persistent defiance of its international partners is simply incomprehensible. It is particularly ironic—given the Uzbek government’s longstanding persecution of religious dissent and the enormous pressure it has exerted on its neighbors to violate their fundamental obligations under international law by returning Uzbeks who fled the country following a government massacre in the city of Andijan in May 2005—that the justification for the prize should have been President Karimov’s “great contribution to strengthening friendship and cooperation between the nations, development of cultural and religious dialogue, and supporting cultural diversity.”
But perhaps most unfortunate and disturbing are the implications of the fact that the prize should have been awarded by an agency of the UN. At best, this move reveals a lack of coordination amongst UN agencies to ensure that actions taken by one agency do not inadvertently serve to undermine the rest of the institution’s policies. At worst, it suggests a deeply troubling disregard by UNESCO for the principles underpinning the UN system and the Secretary General’s report, “In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights For All,” which underscores the need for all areas of the UN system to make human rights a central pillar of their work.
As you must be aware, the Uzbek government has a longstanding record of deeply-rooted repression and widespread human rights abuse which has been extensively documented by a range of UN bodies. It keeps tight control over all media and other forms of expression, and harasses and imprisons human rights defenders and dissidents. Opposition political parties cannot operate freely, and since the end of the Soviet era there has not been a single election that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) found to be free or fair. Uzbekistan has no independent judiciary, and torture is rampant in both pre-trial and post-conviction facilities. The government continues to press forward with a campaign of unlawful arrest, torture, and imprisonment of Muslims who practice their faith outside state controls or who belong to unregistered religious organizations.
Uzbekistan’s atrocious human rights record culminated in a government massacre of hundreds of unarmed protesters as they fled a demonstration in the city of Andijan in May 2005. Sixteen months after the massacre, no one has been held accountable for the killings. Instead of fostering a genuine accountability process, the government has persistently defied calls, including by the UN Secretary General, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and numerous special procedures for an independent, international inquiry into the Andijan events. It has gone to great lengths to cover up the truth behind the massacre, and denied access to Andijan for any international monitors, including the UN High Commissioner who sought access there soon after the events. Starting in September 2005, authorities in Uzbekistan have presided over a series of show trials of hundreds of people allegedly involved in the uprising and protest that followed, which did nothing to clarify outstanding questions about the scale of and responsibility for the massacre, but simply served to support the government’s version of events.
As made clear in several public statements issued by the UN High Commissioner, her office was unable to monitor the one trial to which authorities granted even limited access for international monitors, due to the government’s refusal to honor the very basic conditions it had set. At the conclusion of the trial, the High Commissioner issued a statement expressing concern that it had been “marred by allegations of irregularities and serious questions remained about its fairness.”
Since the Andijan massacre, Uzbek authorities have also unleashed a fierce crackdown on human rights defenders, independent journalists, and civil society institutions. Numerous human rights defenders have been detained and had criminal charges brought against them, and at least thirteen have been convicted and imprisoned in 2006 alone.
The government has also aggressively pursued the forced return of many of those who fled Uzbekistan after the violence, triggering a serious spillover human rights crisis with a number of individuals already forcibly returned to Uzbekistan and scores of others living in constant fear of being returned to risk of torture and other severe abuses. These developments have been extensively described and documented by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
The government’s failure to cooperate with the international community, and the UN in particular, is not limited to efforts to promote accountability for the Andijan massacre. It has persisted in its failure to implement the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur on torture following his November 2002 visit to the country. As accounted for in detail in the Special Rapporteur’s March 2006 report on “Follow-up to the recommendations made by the Special Rapporteur,” there has been no fundamental change in the widespread use of torture or in policies and practices that could effectively combat it. In June this year, the Special Rapporteur stated that “the mandate…continues to receive serious allegations of torture by Uzbek law enforcement officials, which are regularly transmitted to the Government for clarifications and urgent action.”
The government has also steadfastly refused to allow visits by any of the UN special procedures who have longstanding requests for invitations, including the Special Rapporteurs on torture, on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and on the independence of judges and lawyers, as well as the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on human rights defenders. Michele Picard, UN Independent Expert on Uzbekistan appointed by the Commission on Human Rights under the 1503 procedure, has not been able to carry out a single visit to Uzbekistan. In March this year, the government ordered the closure of the UNHCR’s office in Tashkent, presumably in retaliation for the agency’s intensive and laudable efforts to protect Uzbek refugees in Kyrgyzstan and beyond from forced return to persecution in Uzbekistan.
A June 2006 Uzbek government aide-memoire addressed to Secretary General Kofi Annan, prepared in response to the strongly critical resolution the General Assembly adopted on its human rights record last year, illustrates well the government’s lack of good faith dialogue with the international community. The document is filled with mischaracterizations of its policies, denies the existence of any human rights problems in the country, and rejects any concerns expressed by the international community as “unfounded.” It is hard to imagine how an even vaguely informed reader of this intentionally and outrageously misleading document could avoid getting a sense of utter contempt and disrespect on the part of the Uzbek authorities towards its international partners.
The damaging impact of UNESCO’s deeply misguided decision is going to be hard to undo. President Karimov has already had ample opportunity to use it for both domestic and international propaganda purposes, flagging it as an endorsement of his repressive policies. The stakes are high not least in light of the 2nd session of the UN Human Rights Council which opens in Geneva next week, and where Uzbekistan’s human rights record is likely to be the subject of long-overdue critical scrutiny.
In the interest of avoiding further damage to the cause of human rights in Uzbekistan, we urge you to issue a public statement as a matter of urgent priority, reaffirming UNESCO’s commitment to UN human rights principles and unequivocal support for its peer UN agencies’ efforts to end the relentless cycle of abuse in Uzbekistan. If left unaddressed, the decision could have far-reaching consequences. It risks to condone further repression in Uzbekistan, and bring into question the UN’s credibility and standing as a principled promoter of fundamental human rights.
Thank you for your prompt attention to this serious matter.
Europe and Central Asia division
Human Rights Watch
Mr. Kofi Annan, Secretary-General, United Nations