We are writing in advance of the May 14-15 General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC), to convey our profound concern about the worsening human rights situation in Uzbekistan and the damaging effects of the EU’s weak approach to human rights. We urge you to ensure a shift in EU policy toward Tashkent as a matter of urgent priority – resulting in an EU policy that is guided by an accurate and credible assessment of the conditions on the ground, and that genuinely seeks to advance concrete improvements in human rights as a key component of the EU’s engagement with the Uzbek government.
The EU sanctions currently in place form a crucial part of such a policy. Some in the EU have argued that the sanctions have not produced the desired outcome and should therefore be dropped. But the EU’s failure to date to give the sanctions a realistic chance to be effective invalidates such arguments. We remain convinced that the sanctions carry a real potential to serve as effective tools for positive change. Rather than viewing them as a nuisance hindering smooth relations and looking for excuses to lift them, the EU should give them practical meaning by formulating the concrete steps the Uzbek government needs to take in order for the sanctions to be reconsidered, and by engaging in pro-active follow-up with Tashkent to secure the required changes.
The release of imprisoned human rights defenders should top the list of EU demands. Other key human rights demands include, at a minimum, ending the crackdown on human rights defenders, independent journalists, and members of the political opposition, and allowing domestic and international human rights groups to operate without government interference – including by re-registering those that have been liquidated or otherwise forced to stop working in Uzbekistan, and issuing visas for staff of international NGOs.
Instead of demanding the release of imprisoned defenders, the EU’s efforts to date have been centered on convincing the Uzbek government to agree to a structured “human rights dialogue.” The EU rushed to “welcome” Uzbek authorities’ willingness to hold such a dialogue even before it had taken place and without any acknowledgment of the fact that the Uzbek government had made no commitments to change any of its most abusive policies that would logically be the subject of such a dialogue. EU diplomats have also portrayed Uzbek authorities as increasingly open for their mere willingness to discuss the Andijan events, even though, as acknowledged by a number of participants, these talks primarily served as an opportunity for the Uzbek government to reiterate its version of what happened in the lead-up to the massacre. Some EU officials have made no secret of their desire to see the sanctions lifted in response to this “progress.”
In stark contrast to statements expressing the EU’s appreciation for the Uzbek government’s willingness to engage in dialogue, not a single EU statement has been issued calling for imprisoned human rights defenders to be unconditionally released. This public silence we fear reflects an overall low priority placed on this issue in the EU’s agenda in meetings and correspondence with the Uzbek government. Since the EU decided to soften its sanctions last November, authorities in Uzbekistan proceeded to arrest another two human rights defenders – Umida Niazova and Gulbahor Turaeva – raising the number of arbitrarily imprisoned defenders to at least 15. Both mothers of young children, Niazova and Turaeva have just been sentenced to lengthy prison terms following sham trials which EU diplomats were barred from monitoring, showing tragically just how confident the Uzbek authorities are that they have no negative repercussions to fear from their actions.
Shockingly, rather than making clear the sanctions will remain firmly in place until Niazova, Turaeva and other imprisoned activists are released, senior EU officials have gone on record saying that “any one case should be put in the balance of wider EU reform efforts” in Central Asia, and that “one should not expect that the Uzbek authorities will release such prisoners overnight.” Portraying the imprisonment of individuals such as Niazova and Turaeva as isolated cases that somehow should be considered separate from “the bigger picture” of EU relations with Uzbekistan is profoundly misguided. The prison sentences of Niazova and Turaeva are not anomalies; they are emblematic of the fierce, systematic crackdown on civil society perpetrated by the Uzbek government since the Andijan massacre. These women are only the latest victims of a brutal government increasingly emboldened by the EU’s failure to prioritize human rights, of which the statements cited above are only the most recent evidence.
The detrimental effects of this failure has been felt not only by imprisoned rights defenders. Authorities have further tightened their grip on civil society activists who so far have been fortunate enough to escape imprisonment. Such activists have endured constant intimidation and harassment, attacks and interrogation, surveillance and house arrest, and a number of them have been prevented by the authorities from participating in conferences abroad or meeting with visiting foreign delegations in Tashkent.
In one recent example, Vasila Inoiatova of Ezgulik was summoned by the traffic police on March 20, just as she was preparing to meet with a visiting European Parliament delegation. She was allowed to leave only several hours later, by which time she had missed the meeting. On April 1, 2007 Uzbek authorities detained Elena Urlaeva, another prominent defender at the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border when she returned from a workshop organized by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bishkek. Police held Urlaeva for eight hours during which time she was not allowed to make any calls, and confiscated from her photos and recorded every single piece of paper she had with her, including UN documents, contact details of Uzbek refugees in Kyrgyzstan, and her personal notes.
Uzbek authorities also recently refused to extend the work accreditation of Human Rights Watch’s representative in Tashkent, claiming she had “exceeded her authority” and “worked outside the office charter” – formulations the Uzbek government has used before to expel staff of international or foreign organizations. Although her accreditation was subsequently renewed for a period of three months, Foreign Minister Norov in a face-to-face meeting with the Human Rights Watch representative warned her that she must stop violating Uzbek law, accusing her of violations of the law that never took place, and refusing to listen to her explain why these accusations were false. Minister Norov also accused Human Rights Watch – one of the last remaining international organizations in Uzbekistan – of projecting a negative image of the country and made clear the representative’s accreditation would be “re-examined” at the end of the three-month period.
The Uzbek government bears full responsibilty for its atrocious human rights record. But the worsening human rights situation in Uzbekistan is also directly linked to the EU’s soft-pedaling on this record. The Uzbek government not only failed to take any positive steps to address abuses but obviously felt no compulsion to refrain from further abuse despite the looming sanctions review, no doubt because of the positive signals it received from the EU. This startling fact should alone prompt the EU to immediately recognize the utter failure of its policy.
By contrast, the run-up period to last November’s GAERC decision on the sanctions saw one imprisoned journalist released – a move that should have emboldened the EU to demand more releases. The EU’s failure to make such demands the starting point of its dialogue with the Uzbek government is unconscionable and wholly inconsisent with its stated commitment to human rights.
We urge you to ensure a firm extension of the EU sanctions currently in place and to make clear they will not be reconsidered until imprisoned rights defenders are released. It is time for an EU strategy toward Tashkent that has at its core the lives of Uzbeks and the EU’s own principles, rather than political expediency.
Europe and Central Asia Division
CC: High Representative Javier Solana, External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Political Directors and PSC Ambassadors