The European Union should maintain its sanctions regime on Uzbekistan until Tashkent delivers on key human rights demands, Human Rights Watch said today.
The European Union (EU) is conducting its twice-yearly review of the sanctions, and foreign ministers are due to reach a final agreement during the upcoming General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC), to be held in Luxembourg on April 28 and 29. At issue is whether the EU should extend the conditional suspension of the bulk of its sanctions – imposed on Uzbekistan in response to the May 2005 massacre in Andijan and the ensuing crackdown on civil society – or reinstate them in full.
“Uzbekistan’s recent grudging steps to better its dreadful human rights record are a direct result of EU pressure generated by the sanctions,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “European leaders should use this precious leverage to secure real and lasting improvements for the people of Uzbekistan, rather than reward Tashkent prematurely.”
A key consideration for EU ministers making policy on Uzbekistan is that the sanctions as a whole will automatically expire in October 2008 unless renewed by consensus – a highly unlikely scenario given the lack of support for the sanctions by some EU member states.
Next week, the EU will likely extend the suspension of sanctions, justifying this decision as an appropriate response to recent positive moves by Tashkent. Human Rights Watch urged the EU to accompany any such suspension with an extension of the sanctions regime as a whole beyond its current expiration date in order to maintain pressure until Uzbekistan has met all the EU’s assessment criteria, which include the release of imprisoned rights activists and an end to the ongoing crackdown on civil society.
“If the EU is serious about advancing human rights improvements in Uzbekistan, it can’t let the sanctions expire in October,” Cartner said.
In a letter sent to EU foreign ministers in advance of the council meeting, Human Rights Watch argued that recent positive steps by Tashkent – including the release and/or amnesty of eight wrongfully imprisoned rights defenders and an agreement granting the International Committee of the Red Cross access to prisons – showed the sanctions can be effective.
While acknowledging that Tashkent had taken steps in the right direction during the last several months, Human Rights Watch cautioned that they should not eclipse the overall abysmal state of human rights in the country, and the fact that the Uzbek government has not come close to meeting the criteria set by the EU because:
- It continues to imprison for politically motivated reasons at least 12 rights defenders (one in a closed psychiatric ward), as well as a number of political dissidents;
- It has failed to grant requested access to the country for United Nations Special Rapporteurs;
- It continues to crack down on civil society, subjecting human rights activists who have escaped imprisonment and their families to constant threats and harassment;
- It has failed to grant accreditation to Human Rights Watch’s Tashkent director, weeks after the deadline stipulated by Uzbek regulation for a response expired;
- It has failed to take effective action to address the culture of impunity for torture, which remains rampant despite recent legislation introducing habeas corpus;
- It still refuses to ensure justice for the May 2005 massacre at Andijan and 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 new waves of refugees to this day; and
- It continues to seek the forcible return of refugees from Andijan. This week, a man who fled in the immediate aftermath of the massacre was arrested by Kazakh authorities pursuant to an Uzbek extradition warrant.
Human Rights Watch has also received worrying reports that Uzbek authorities pressured at least some of the defenders released and/or amnestied to sign statements promising to abandon their human rights activism, in direct defiance of the EU requirement that the Uzbek government end harassment of human rights defenders and allow nongovernmental organizations to operate without constraints.
Just last week, authorities sentenced Yusuf Jumaev to five years of imprisonment in a penal settlement on charges that included “insult” and “resisting arrest,” and that appeared politically motivated. Jumaev, a poet and political dissident, had called for President Islam Karimov’s resignation in the run-up to the December 2007 presidential elections.
“Years of experience should have taught the EU that the Uzbek government only delivers reform when it’s under pressure, and right now sanctions are the best way to keep the pressure on,” Cartner said.
The European Union first imposed sanctions on Uzbekistan in October 2005, in response to Tashkent’s refusal to agree to an international commission of inquiry into the May 2005 Andijan massacre, as well as the unprecedented levels of government crackdown on civil society perpetrated in the months following the massacre. The sanctions consisted of a visa ban on 12 Uzbek officials the EU considered “directly responsible for the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force in Andijan,” an arms embargo, and partial suspension of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), the framework that regulates the EU’s relationship with Uzbekistan. This marked the first time in the EU’s history that it suspended a PCA with another country over human rights concerns.
Since imposing the sanctions, the EU has incrementally weakened them despite the Uzbek government’s failure to heed EU human rights demands. The EU lifted the partial suspension of the PCA in November 2006, and then took the names of four officials off the visa ban list in May 2007. In October 2007, while extending the sanctions for another 12 months, the EU suspended the visa ban for six months, justifying the move as a constructive gesture aimed at encouraging the Uzbek government to undertake the necessary human rights reforms. In October 2008, the sanctions will automatically expire unless they are renewed by consensus – a highly unlikely scenario given the lack of support for them by a number of key EU member states.