At the height of summer, when foreign ministers adopted the European Union's new human-rights strategy, Catherine Ashton, the high representative for foreign affairs, was eloquent in promising to make these issues a core ingredient in the EU's foreign relations.
“[I] am clear that we cannot succeed if we talk only about rights to those who want to hear it and otherwise keep silent” she wrote in a think-tank article. “That we cannot forget human rights just because we are talking to governments about commercial relations or energy links. Ethics are indivisible.”
Now winter is coming, and with her trip through central Asia next week, starting 26 November, Ashton has a prime opportunity to turn words into action. Sadly, this region fits neatly with the challenges she recognises. Governments there prefer visitors to “keep silent” on human rights. And commercial relations, energy links – and one could add military co-operation regarding Afghanistan – have decisively pushed human-rights issues down, if not off, the EU's agenda.
Ashton could set an example by raising the case of Vladimir Kozlov, a political opposition leader in Kazakhstan sentenced last month to over seven years in prison in an unfair trial on overly broad charges. And the dozens of human-rights activists in prison in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan for simply defending their rights and those of others. And the closure last month in Tajikistan of Amparo, a group of young lawyers that was co-operating with the local EU office. And the lack of real justice for ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan following the inter-ethnic violence there in 2010.
Broader issues are at stake too. Retrenchment in respect for human rights is occurring across the entire region of 64 million people. The governments of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan remain amongst the very worst human-rights abusers in the world. The EU's shift of policy on Uzbekistan in particular – from showing resolve and imposing sanctions after a massacre there in 2005, to removing sanctions and relying on ‘quiet diplomacy' – has undermined its overall approach to the region.
The EU has a complex economic and strategic relationship with this region, and is very aware of its influence there in relation to powers such as Russia, the US and China. Yet if the new strategic human-rights framework is to mean anything, it is that concerns over human rights, democracy and the rule of law will be, as the strategy says, promoted “in all areas of the EU's external relations without exception”.
So, in future, rights abuses in Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan should not be played down when new EU energy deals are pending. And in Uzbekistan, the EU should consider real steps – possibly including punitive measures – to respond to Tashkent's continued torture of its prisoners, even though Germany and other countries rely on a military base there.
This shift should also shape the way the EU engages with central Asia. The bloc's central Asia strategy, which turned five years old this summer, sees human rights as a “priority area”, but has had little impact.
Central Asian states are tough negotiating partners. But blame also lies with the EU's approach. It has used low-level, opaque human-rights ‘dialogues' to raise concerns. A better approach in helping ordinary people would be to make human rights a core part of higher-level contacts with government leaders; to articulate publicly the EU's expectations for change; to make local civil society an integral part of the process; and to make clear that there will be consequences for central Asian governments if they do not act.
As Ashton says, it was for such ordinary people “who overcome fear and oppression... to battle for a better world” that she entered politics. “These are the type of champions I want to champion” she added. That was in the summer; next week will be a test if her will holds in the chill of central Asia.
Hugh Williamson is the Berlin-based director of the Europe and central Asia division of Human Rights Watch.