The Uzbek government should make urgent progress in meeting the specific benchmarks in human rights set by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in its new country strategy for Uzbekistan, Human Rights Watch said today.

“The Bank has made clear that it expects reforms in exchange for engagement,” said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. “The ball is now in Karimov’s court, and the international community is watching closely what steps are taken as a result.”

In its strategy, published on March 16, the EBRD found that Uzbekistan’s progress toward democracy and human rights remained “slow and characterized by setbacks.” It flagged “[s]ystematic violations of the freedom of religion, expression, association and assembly,” and “arbitrary arrests and torture of detainees in order to obtain confessions or incriminating statements.” It further noted that the renewed interest on the part of the international community in Central Asia following September 11, 2001 was “a good opportunity for the country to accelerate political and economic reforms,” which the Uzbek government had “failed to use effectively.” The strategy concluded that “Uzbekistan needs to take a number of critical steps to put the country on a path of sustained progress,” and set specific benchmarks for the government to fulfill, including:

  • Greater political openness and freedom of the media;
  • Registration and free functioning of independent civil society groups; and
  • Improvements of the country’s human rights record, including through implementation of the recommendations issued earlier this month by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture following his country visit to Uzbekistan in late 2002.

The strategy specifies that the EBRD will conduct a thorough progress review in a year, and makes clear that “[s]hould no progress be made in these areas, the scope for new investments in Uzbekistan during the strategy period, both in the private and public sector, will be limited.”

The adoption of a new country strategy for Uzbekistan comes at a critical moment for the Bank’s engagement with the country, less than two months before it is scheduled to hold its annual meeting in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital. The Bank has faced significant criticism for its decision to grant the Uzbek government, among the most repressive in the region, the political prestige and financial benefits attached to hosting a high-level gathering of the kind that its annual meetings represent.

A broad NGO campaign launched last May by Human Rights Watch and over fifty partners has been calling on the EBRD to use the leverage provided by the meeting to press for concrete progress in human rights in advance of it. In previous months, the EBRD had been reluctant to use benchmarks to put pressure on the Uzbek government. Just weeks before the meeting, that now seems to have changed.

“Finally we see a public acknowledgment by the Bank that things are seriously wrong in the country,” said Andersen. “While welcome, a lot of valuable time has been lost due the Bank’s refusal to use the momentum of the run-up period to extract concrete progress in human rights. Setting these same benchmarks a year ago and attaching them to the annual meeting would obviously have been far more effective.”

The Bank and its shareholders will now have to work hard to make up for the time lost and help ensure that the meeting – and their engagement with Uzbekistan overall – serve to promote human rights and democracy in the country. “It is crucial that the momentum not get lost after the meeting is over,” said Andersen. “We will be monitoring the process closely, to make sure the Bank remains serious about its commitment and conducts a serious review when the year is up.”

In a letter to the EBRD Board of Directors in advance of its discussion of the country strategy, Human Rights Watch and CEE Bankwatch urged it to ensure that the strategy gives an adequate assessment of the situation on the ground, calls for specific improvements in human rights, and links these reforms to the upcoming annual meeting in May.