European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Annual Meeting in Uzbekistan, May 4-5, 2003
EBRD Meeting in Tashkent Turns into Scrutiny of Host Government's Abysmal Rights Record
Uzbekistan has one of the poorest human rights records of any former Soviet republic. So human rights groups in Uzbekistan and around the world were surprized when a major financial institution chose Tashkent as the site of its annual meeting. Because the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has a mandate to promote development in those countries in the region that are committed to democracy and human rights, Human Rights Watch led a coalition of more than fifty partners in trying to induce the bank to insist that Uzbekistan make human rights improvements before the meeting in Tashkent on May 4 and 5.
The Bank's annual meetings usually center on investment opportunities in the host country. But this year, the coalition's campaign turned the meeting into a debate of the Uzbek government's poor human rights record and the Bank's commitment to addressing these concerns. Neither of them made for a pretty picture.
Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov failed to deliver on what was widely reported as an agreement reached with the Bank, to use his own televised speech to condemn torture in Uzbekistan. This failure bore out Human Rights Watch's concerns that the Bank had failed to use its leverage to extract genuine concessions from the government in the lead-up to the meeting, rather than at the meeting itself.
But in keynote speeches, also broadcast live on Uzbek television, EBRD President Jean Lemierre and U.K.'s then-Development Minister Clare Short emphasized the need for the Uzbek leadership to make progress on human rights. They raised in particular the recent recommendations by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, which found torture in the country to be "systematic."
This amounted to a public scolding of President Karimov's broken promise, and it did not go unnoticed. As Lemierre and Short delivered their critical speeches, President Karimov removed his headphones and demonstratively covered his ears.
The participation of non-governmental organizations in the meeting reached record levels. More than 150 NGOs attended, some 60 of them from Uzbekistan. The gathering provided a rare forum for Uzbek NGOs to confront their government directly about its human rights record. The meeting also set in motion a process for the Bank to engage in follow up with the Uzbek government, to ensure protection for those who used the Bank's presence to exercise their right to freedom of speech and assembly. In worrisome developments documented by Human Rights Watch, local human rights defenders have already suffered several incidents of intimidation and harassment by Uzbek law enforcement before, during, and after the meeting. For more information, see: http://www.hrw.org/press/2003/05/uzbek050203.htm and http://www.hrw.org/press/2003/05/uzbek050703.htm
For Human Rights Watch's very latest advocacy efforts on this issue, see:
The EBRD will also have to actively monitor the Uzbek government's fulfillment of the specific benchmarks for human rights improvements it set in its recent country strategy for Uzbekistan. In the strategy, adopted in March, the Bank gave the Uzbek leadership one year to meet these benchmarks, focused on freedom of expression, free operation of civil society and political opposition, and measures to combat torture. When the year is up, the Bank will undertake a thorough review of progress, and use that assessment as a basis for determining its level of engagement in the country. Human Rights Watch and its campaign partners will continue to actively monitor developments in Uzbekistan, and the Bank's commitment to keeping up the momentum for change.