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Letter to EU on Uzbekistan Sanctions Review

We are writing in advance of the upcoming Council review of EU policy toward Uzbekistan, at which we urge you to reaffirm the clear human rights demands articulated by the October 2007 General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC), and ensure the integrity of the sanctions regime by keeping it in place until all assessment criteria set by the EU have been met.

The current sanctions cycle has seen a number of notable positive developments in Uzbekistan’s human rights record: the release and/or amnesty of eight wrongfully imprisoned human rights defenders, the conclusion of an agreement between the government and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) regarding prison visits, and the entry into force of new legislation abolishing the death penalty and introducing habeas corpus. These steps are clearly the result of EU pressure generated by the sanctions, and the formulation of concrete benchmarks against which the Uzbek government is being assessed. They show that sustained EU pressure on Tashkent is effective, and are evidence of the real potential the sanctions carry to serve as effective policy tools for positive change.

While we certainly welcome these developments, they should not eclipse the overall abysmal state of human rights in Uzbekistan, and the fact that the Uzbek government has not come close to meeting the criteria set by the EU. At least 12 rights defenders continue to be imprisoned (one of whom in a closed psychiatric ward) for politically motivated reasons and a number of political dissidents are also serving long prison sentences. UN Special Rapporteurs have not been granted access to Uzbekistan, despite having repeatedly requested an invitation from the Uzbek government.

Civil society continues to operate under conditions of extreme government repression; defenders who have been fortunate enough to escape imprisonment, as well as their families, are under constant threat and harassment. For example, in March and April 2008, human rights defenders in the cities of Jizzakh (Bakhtior Khamroev), Samarkand (Komil Ashurov), and Margilan (Ahmadjon Madmarov) were subjected to heavy surveillance and harassment. Weekly human rights pickets in front of the General Prosecutor’s Office in Tashkent are no longer held due to the violent attacks on participants during March 2008. In the last six months alone, several defenders have had to flee the country as a result of government pressure, indicating that the crackdown against the human rights community continues unabated. We have also received worrying reports that some of the eight human rights defenders mentioned above were amnestied only after they signed statements promising to abandon their human rights activism. Such pressure obviously flies in the face of the EU requirement that the Uzbek government end harassment of human rights defenders and allow nongovernmental organizations to operate without constraints. Human Rights Watch’s Tashkent director has not been accredited, weeks after the deadline for a response expired.

Habeas corpus reform notwithstanding, torture remains rampant and there is no evidence of government action to address the culture of impunity, highlighted by the UN Committee Against Torture in its November 2007 examination of Uzbekistan as a key obstacle to effectively combating torture. There has been no justice for the May 2005 massacre at Andijan and the government continues to persecute people it deems to have any connection with the Andijan events—including refugees who fled the country in the immediate aftermath of the massacre and later returned to Uzbekistan—triggering a new wave of refugees.

It is therefore crucial at this critical juncture for the EU to concentrate its policy on obtaining the outstanding human rights steps it has repeatedly stated were necessary, and firmly maintain pressure on the Uzbek government until they have materialized. Backtracking now would be detrimental not just for those in Uzbekistan who are counting on a principled EU policy to secure their safety and freedom, but for EU credibility more broadly as an effective promoter of human rights.

Recognizing fully the encouraging positive developments these past several months have seen, we believe it is important to reflect on what specifically triggered these changes. Making an informed and honest assessment in this regard is particularly important in light of two unprecedented characteristics of the sanctions policy currently in place—the conditional suspension for six months of the bulk of the sanctions (the visa ban on eight Uzbek government officials), and the automatic reinstatement clause should the conditions set by the EU remain unfulfilled. This latter formula, requiring unanimity in order for the suspension to be extended, stands in stark contrast to the previous sanctions cycles, where unanimity was needed to keep the sanctions in place.

We are firmly convinced that it was the looming threat of reinstatement of the full set of sanctions rather than the suspension per se that was the key trigger for positive change. Thus, the releases we have witnessed were not the result of a change of heart on the part of the Uzbek government, but rather a realization that real concessions are necessary if the sanctions are ultimately to go away.

It is therefore of utmost importance that this precious leverage is maintained. In our assessment, this is only possible through a formula that: (1) secures the continuity of the sanctions regime beyond October 2008 (for at least one additional year beyond the current expiration date), (2) maintains the automatic reinstatement clause currently in force, and (3) ensures continued periodic reviews (at least on a twice-yearly basis) of the Uzbek government’s record in meeting the criteria set by the EU.

Simply extending the suspension without at the same time addressing the longer-term future of the sanctions policy would remove precisely the point of leverage that was so crucial to secure the positive steps witnessed during the current sanctions cycle. It would amount to a choice for political expediency at the expense of human rights. It would inevitably be interpreted as an exit strategy on the part the EU, and send all the wrong signals to Tashkent—namely that the EU is satisfied with the government’s human rights record, and that waiting it out for another six months is all the government needs to do.

We urge you to give meaning to the EU’s principled rhetoric on human rights by ensuring that the policy towards Uzbekistan is focused on achieving the human rights improvements set out in the criteria and that sustained pressure for such progress is maintained. Mutabar Tojibaeva and the many other defenders remain behind bars solely because they had the courage to promote the very values the EU claims to stand for. They should be able to count on an EU policy guided by the imperative to secure their freedom.

Thank you for your attention.

Sincerely,

Holly Cartner
Executive Director
Europe and Central Asia Division

Lotte Leicht
EU Director

CC: Ms. Benita Ferrero-Waldner, EU Commissioner for External Relations
Mr. Javier Solana, EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy
Mr. Pierre Morel, EU Special Representative for Central Asia
EU Political and Security Committee Ambassadors
EU Council Working Group on Eastern Europe and Central Asia
EU Regional Directors for Eastern Europe and Central Asia

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