The European Union should firmly maintain its sanctions on Uzbekistan, making clear they will not be reconsidered until the Uzbek government delivers on key human rights demands.

The release of imprisoned human rights defenders, currently numbering at least 13, should top the EU’s list of requirements, Human Rights Watch said.

“Resolute EU action is the only hope for these individuals to see the light of freedom,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Wavering while they remain behind bars is a mistake the EU simply cannot afford.”

The EU sanctions on Uzbekistan – consisting of an embargo on arms sales and a visa ban on eight Uzbek officials – are scheduled for discussion by EU foreign ministers, convening in Luxembourg for their monthly General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) on October 15 and 16, 2007.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the outcome is likely to be a further – and absurd – weakening of the sanctions. This would include a six-month suspension of the visa ban, justified by its proponents – with Germany in the lead – as a necessary “gesture” to secure continued dialogue with Tashkent. The suspension will not carry an automatic reinstatement clause should the Uzbek government continue to defy EU calls for human rights progress.

Human Rights Defenders in Uzbekistan
Human Rights Defenders. Photos © private (Gulbakhor Turaeva © ferghana.ru)

“The argument being made is that, with the Uzbek government angry, it is not possible to discuss human rights,” said Cartner. “But the point of the sanctions isn’t empty dialogue, it’s to change behavior, and on that score Tashkent has only gone backwards, including by keeping 13 human rights defenders in custody.”

In a letter sent to EU foreign ministers ahead of next week’s meeting, Human Rights Watch urged the EU to reaffirm its call – made in May for the first time in a public statement – for the unconditional release of imprisoned human rights defenders. It also called on the EU to pursue additional concrete human rights improvements as part of its engagement with the Uzbek government, including:

  • Ending the crackdown on civil society – human rights defenders,
    independent journalists, and members of the political opposition – ongoing since the May 2005 Andijan massacre;
  • 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 nongovernmental organizations;
  • Implementing in full the recommendations of the United Nations special rapporteur on torture; and,
  • Allowing unfettered access for independent monitors, including UN special rapporteurs who have been unable to visit due to the government’s refusal to issue the required invitations.

“Suspension in the face of no progress is nothing less than capitulation,” said Cartner. “Rather than giving away critical leverage, the EU should use its leverage to protect those who risked their lives and freedom to promote the very values that the EU purports to stand for.”

Human Rights Watch applauded those EU member states, particularly Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom, that have opposed any further weakening of the sanctions absent concrete results, and encouraged them to remain steadfast in their principled approach. Countries that were leading the effort to abandon EU leverage and human rights credibility include Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain.

“It is high time to expose the hypocrisy surrounding EU policy toward Tashkent,” said Cartner. “Germany and its allies who have consistently sought to undermine the sanctions and bully others into submission should no longer be allowed to hide behind the banner of a ‘common position’ compromise.”

Background

The EU sanctions on Uzbekistan were first imposed in October 2005, in response to Tashkent’s refusal to agree to an international commission of inquiry into the May 2005 Andijan massacre, in which Uzbek security forces killed hundreds of mostly unarmed protesters fleeing a demonstration, as well as the fierce government crackdown that ensued.

In addition to the visa ban and the arms embargo, the original sanctions also consisted of a partial suspension of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), the framework that regulates the EU’s relationship with Uzbekistan – marking the first time in the EU’s history that it suspended a PCA with another country over human rights concerns. The visa ban originally covered 12 officials the EU considered “directly responsible for the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force in Andijan.” The partial suspension of the PCA was lifted in November 2006, while May 2007 saw the names of four officials taken off the visa ban list.

When imposing the sanctions, the EU specified that they would be kept under review on the basis of a number of assessment criteria, including the conduct and outcome of the Andijan-related trials; detention and harassment of those who have questioned the Uzbek authorities’ version of the Andijan events; the government’s cooperation with, and the outcome of, an independent international investigation; and “any action that demonstrates the willingness of the Uzbek authorities to adhere to the principles of respect for human rights, rule of law and fundamental freedoms.”

More recently, the EU has also made clear that in considering its sanctions policy toward Uzbekistan, it would “take into account the actions of the Uzbek government in the area of human rights, including the results” of a human rights dialogue it began pursuing with the Uzbek government (a first round of which was held in Tashkent on May 8 and 9). The GAERC conclusions of May 2007 stated that the EU “look[ed] forward to its continuation in an open and constructive manner with a view to achieving concrete and sustained results.” In the six months since this statement was made, no further rounds of the dialogue have been held, after the Uzbek government apparently made clear that it was not prepared to engage in such talks again until early 2008.