Human Rights News
HRW World Report 2001: Europe and Central Asia FREE    Join the HRW Mailing List 
Memorandum: U.S. Policy in Central Asia
(May 2001) This memorandum outlines Human Rights Watch's most pressing concerns about recent U.S. foreign policy toward the independent Central Asian states, offered for the new administration's consideration as it sets in motion its policy toward that volatile region.


Key Sections

Religious Freedom

Democratization

Security Assistance

Bilateral and Multilateral Economic Assistance

Related Material

Focus on Human Rights in
Kazakhstan Kyrgyzstan Tajikistan Turkmenistan Uzbekistan Caucasus and Central Asia Europe and Central Asia
Human Rights Watch has promoted the observance of international human rights norms in the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union since the late 1980s, and opened its first office in the region in 1994. In sum, our assessment is that Central Asian governments have made, at best, only limited progress toward democracy in the last ten years, and that their ongoing violations of their citizens' rights threaten to destabilize further an already troubled region. The serious flaws in these governments' political transitions result in a disturbing level of abuse-in the cases of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, reminiscent of the worst periods of Soviet repression.

While the suffering of victims is itself cause for action, the rampant corruption, lack of rule of law, and repressive policies that to varying degrees characterize governance in these states also threaten important U.S. interests. Repression aggravates social tensions. It widens the gulf between Muslim believers and secular governments, exacerbating one of the most dangerous fault lines in the world today. It undermines economic reform, deters honest investment and stunts the development of strong civil societies.

U.S. policy toward the region during the past eight years has failed to address these problems effectively, largely because the message conveyed to these governments has been inconsistent. Rhetorical assertions of the importance of human rights and democratization as the key to developing full relations with the U.S. have been coupled with an assistance policy that conferred benefits on those states, without regard for their human rights performance. When, in Turkmenistan, the U.S. did finally halt further financing for Ex-Im and other assistance, it did so without explicitly tying the move to that country's record of tyranny. This approach has badly undercut the U.S. government's human rights message, providing virtually no incentives to curb abuse and pursue reform.

U.S. policy toward the region should be reoriented to arrest the downward political trends. It must emphasize more clearly that mutual interests ineconomic transition and political stability can be advanced only through respect for human rights and rule of law and that the level of U.S. engagement will relate directly to the level of respect for these principles. Then, significantly, words must be followed by actions. The Bush administration should refuse to be a silent partner in these governments' human rights violations, but rather tie its cooperation on all fronts to concrete, measurable improvements in meeting international human rights obligations. The following discussion outlines a number of ways in which the new administration might pursue this approach.

Religious Freedom
Governments across the region cite legitimate threats to regional security as pretexts for repressing dissident individuals and groups, whether religiously or politically defined. This tendency is most pronounced in Uzbekistan, where thousands of religious believers have been arrested. But it has also emerged in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, where the governments have all followed Uzbekistan's lead in criminalizing the peaceful expression of religious belief and jailing alleged "religious extremists," notably members of the group Hizb ut-Tahrir, who are not accused of committing any violent acts. Such repression may well drive otherwise peaceful dissenters to abandon non-violent forms of protest.

Against this backdrop, it is essential for the U.S. to send clear and consistent political signals to regional governments. As an instructive counterexample, in June 2000, Secretary Albright traveled to Uzbekistan, where she cautioned that in its fight against terrorism, the government must "distinguish very carefully between peaceful devout believers and those who advocate terrorism." Unfortunately, the U.S. government then failed to designate Uzbekistan as a country of particular concern under the International Religious Freedom Act. It proceeded, however, to designate the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan a terrorist organization, creating the very policy imbalance against which the Secretary cautioned. The U.S. thereby endorsed Uzbek security policy while turning a blind eye to violations of religious freedom. To many observers, the International Relgious Freedom Act (IRFA) decision also suggested that the U.S. commitment to religious freedom is weaker when it comes to defending the rights of Muslims. The Uzbek government response was to continue with its campaign against independent religious believers under the guise of counter-terrorism, which has fueled greater insecurity within the country and throughout the region.

The U.S. response to Uzbek government policies is not lost on other regional governments. In Kazakhstan, four accused members of the religious group Hizb ut-Tahrir were convicted last week on charges of instigating religious and social animosity, attempting to overthrow the constitutional order, and taking part in an illegal organization financed from abroad. In a pattern strikingly reminiscent of Uzbek tactics used to round up thousands of peaceful religious believers, the men were initially charged with possession of illegal narcotics, based on evidence which the defendants allege was planted; those charges were later dropped. The defendants also claim that they were arrested for having met with an Muslim missionary from Tashkent. Characterized by serious due process violations, as well as charges that criminalize peaceful expression, the case signals a worrying development in Kazakhstan's response to pious Muslims that should be a subject of close U.S. government attention.

Turkmenistan completely represses all forms of religious practice other than state-sanctioned Islam and Russian orthodoxy. The case of imprisoned Baptist Shagildy Atakov, whose family has been subjected to constant pressure and internal exile, stands out for its brutality. But hundreds of other Protestants, followers of Hare Krishna and other minority religions have been harassed, questioned by the security police, and threatened with arrest for continuing to exercise their religious convictions. Turkmenistan stands out as the only state in the former USSR where houses of worship (Seventh Day Adventist, Hare Krishna, and Muslim) have been confiscated and destroyed by the state.

The U.S. must take a consistent and principled approach to IRFA implementation. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan should be designated as countries of particular concern this year. A clear signal should also be sent to the governments of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan that continued repression of peaceful religious expression also risks their designation as countries of particular concern.

Democratization
The last two years have seen deeply flawed elections in each of the states in the region, documented in each case in OSCE reports that include detailed recommendations. In each country, those recommendations have been ignored and conditions have continued to deteriorate.
In Kyrgyzstan, government harassment of critical media, independent non-governmental organizations, and civil society activists as well as those affiliated with the political opposition have only intensified since last year's elections. This dashed the hopes of those who predicted that such repression would wane following the vote. That the two most outspoken and politically influential critics of President Akaev, Feliks Kulov and Topchubek Turgunaliev, have been sentenced to prison completely undermines the credibility of Kyrgyzstan's claims to being a democracy as well as a state based on the rule of law. The government continues to use criminal charges and other forms of legal and extra-legal harassment to thwart the activities of human rights defenders and other civil society activists. The Kyrgyz legislature's announcement that it may seek to eliminate the "honor and dignity" violation from the Criminal Code is a potentially positive step for free expression, but authorities still possess and use many other effective means to silence critical media, from selective application of tax and registration regulations to physical intimidation. Criminal libel charges resulting in massive damage awards have already closed down one prominent independent newspaper, Asaba, and intimidated many others.

In Kazakhstan, the government has rebuffed OSCE efforts to help it implement recommendations issued in the wake of highly flawed 1998 and 1999 elections, and it has also indefinitely postponed promised elections for local governors. Observers are most troubled by Kazakhstan's intimidation and harassment of the independent media. Convicted with "offending the honor and dignity of the President," in April the editor of the opposition-affiliated newspaper SolDat was subject to a large fine. That same month, shortly before a U.S. delegation arrived in Astana, unidentified persons broke into the paper's offices and vandalized its computers. An amended law on the media passed in April will make it easier for the state to prosecute journalists and writers, as well as any persons who post critical material on the Internet. Ongoing state-sponsored harassment of leaders and rank-and-file members of opposition political parties, including the Worker's Opposition Movement and the Republican National People's Party, includes police intimidation and questioning by the National Security Service.

Even the most basic components of democratic governance are lacking in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. There are no political parties or movements through which citizens can participate in public life, and elementary freedoms of speech and association are also absent. In Tajikistan, a campaign of violence against members of the former United Tajik Opposition, now represented in government, threatens to unravel the fragile 1997 peace accord.

The OSCE's election-related recommendations should not be allowed to collect dust as a relic of the recent election season. Rather, the U.S. and other OSCE member states should hold these recommendations up as the work plan on which steady progress is expected in connection with enhanced western integration.

In each of the Central Asian states, implementation of electoral reform and meaningful progress toward freedom of association, assembly, and the media-as recommended by the OSCE's election monitoring missions, Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, and the Representative on Freedom of the Media-should be identified as essential to U.S. support for important political concessions. The U.S. should signal that implementation of OSCE election-related recommendations will be a precondition for U.S. support for:

o invitations for any of the Central Asian states to attend the 2002 Community of Democracies meeting.

o pursuing plans to hold the 2003 EBRD annual meeting in Tashkent.

o the scheduling of any future Joint Commission meetings between the U.S. and the states in the region.

o Kazakhstan's bid for observer status at the Council of Europe.

o any further OSCE conferences or other OSCE-sponsored cooperation in the economic and security fields in the region.

Security Assistance
In light of regional governments' counterproductive response to the rise of independent religious movements outlined above, we would like to caution against making military-security cooperation the centerpiece of bilateral relations with the states of Central Asia. An unconditional emphasis on anti-terrorism cooperation supports these governments' equation of ideas they disfavor with terrorism, and communicates to regional governments that the U.S. considers the threats they face to be fundamentally external, rather than stemming from poor governance at home. It makes little sense to equip Central Asian governments to battle insurgents if at the same time those governments continue to pursue policies that may drive their own citizens to support the insurgencies, whether actively or passively. These concerns can only become heightened as governmental counterinsurgency efforts escalate toward full-scale conflict characterized by abuses. This appears to be the case with the Uzbek government's forced resettlement of peaceful villagers bordering Tajikistan during its counter-insurgency campaign against the IMU last year. Seventy-eight men detained during the resettlement operation last year are now due to stand trial on what appear to be trumped-up charges of terrorism, and the government has announced plans to resettle as many as 12,000 more.

Where security assistance goes forward, it should be everywhere paired with a clear human rights message that the level, nature, and recipients of such as assistance depend on human rights performance. As a recent positive example, in the context of the 2000 decision to certify that Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) assistance to Uzbekistan satisfied legal requirements that the recipient country demonstrates a commitment to human rights, the U.S. government effectively persuaded the Uzbek government to give the International Committee of the Red Cross access to its prisons. The certification process also yielded the release of human rights activist Mahbuba Kasymova. While Kasymova's release was indeed significant, she has recently faced renewed harassment and threats relating to her human rights activities, highlighting the need for constant U.S. pressure for sustained improvements.

The administration should develop an interagency strategy to advance a common human rights agenda in the context of its various security assistance programs in the region. Such a strategy might include the designation of an interagency working group to develop a common agenda, coordinate efforts at conveying that agenda to governmental counterparts in the region, and monitor progress and modify the common agenda accordingly. Using the Leahy amendment, CTR conditionality, and other legal human rights requirements imposed on U.S. security assistance as a basis for dialogue, it is vital that this common human rights agenda be consistently presented by the Departments of Defense and Justice, the FBI, and the CIA, as well as by all relevant bureaus of the Department of State and the White House to their governmental counterparts in each of the Central Asian governments.

Bilateral and Multilateral Economic Assistance
Aside from advancing or withholding military-security cooperation, the United States has considerable political and economic leverage, bilaterally and through its participation in multilateral institutions. Significant economic assistance has been extended through credits from the U.S. Export-Import Bank and through the multilateral development banks, without obtaining corresponding commitments to implement the political reform needed to build an economic environment suitable for long-term growth and development. As the recent decision of the IMF to withdraw its representative in Uzbekistan attests, without public accountability, governments have little incentive to dismantle economic policies benefiting a few elites at the expense of the broader population.

The new administration should scrutinize each aspect of economic cooperation for opportunities to promote real, long-term stability in the region by insisting on the construction of a firm foundation of respect for human rights and the rule of law. This approach might include the following measures:

o Identify specific reforms that the governments of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan must take to avoid triggering human rights restrictions on Ex-Im Bank financing and Freedom Support Act assistance.

o Identify specific benchmarks for U.S. support for continued or enhanced lending by the international financial institutions.

o Explicitly cite non-implementation of OSCE and U.N. recommendations relating to human rights and the rule of law in the context of board deliberations on country strategies at the international financial institutions.

o Urge staff of international financial institutions to include rule of law, judicial independence, and civil society and media freedoms among the governance standards used in their policy dialogue with states in the region.

Human Rights Watch appreciates the new administration's attention to the foregoing concerns. We firmly believe that a policy toward Central Asia that fully and consistently integrates human rights concerns into all aspects of U.S. relations with these countries offers the best hope for concrete improvements and for effectively addressing the economic stagnation and political instability in the region. We hope that this memorandum is helpful in U.S. efforts to do so.