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Uzbekistan: UN Review Should Highlight Atrocious Record

Call for Release of Imprisoned Activists and End to Rights Abuses

(New York) - A UN review of Uzbekistan's human rights record on March 11 and 12, 2010, is a rare opportunity to highlight the government's abysmal record and to urge specific steps to end abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. The government's persecution of human rights defenders, rampant torture and ill-treatment, and religious persecution top the list of concerns, Human Rights Watch said.

The UN Human Rights Committee, 18 experts who periodically assess governments' compliance with the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, will issue an authoritative assessment of the state of civil and political rights in Uzbekistan at the end of the process. The assessment will include detailed recommendations of steps the government should take to remedy abuses.

"The Uzbek government tries to divert international criticism by pointing to its action plans or legislative initiatives, but its record remains abysmal," said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.  "The Human Rights Committee should make clear it is not fooled by such empty measures, and insist on real, meaningful reforms."

In a 10-page submission to the committee, Human Rights Watch highlighted a range of concerns. These include government intimidation and harassment of civil society, widespread torture and ill-treatment in detention, severe restrictions on freedom of expression and religion, and an entrenched culture of impunity for serious human rights abuses. Despite the Uzbek government's claims to the contrary, it has done little to tackle these and other human rights problems in Uzbekistan.

The Uzbek government continues to restrict independent civil society activism with severe measures and to obstruct human rights work through harassment, persecution, and imprisonment of civic activists. In the past six months several human rights activists have been detained, physically attacked by unknown assailants, and obstructed in their work. The government has neither investigated the attacks nor held anyone accountable, Human Rights Watch said. At least 14 human rights defenders are currently in prison for no reason other than their legitimate human rights work.

In its submission to the Human Rights Committee, Human Rights Watch outlined a number of steps the Uzbek authorities should be urged to take, including releasing immediately and unconditionally all human rights defenders, journalists, and members of the political opposition imprisoned on politically motivated charges. 

Uzbekistan should also allow domestic and international human rights groups and international media outlets to operate without government interference by re-registering those that have been shut down or otherwise forced to stop working in Uzbekistan, Human Rights Watch said. Authorities should issue visas and accreditation to staff of international nongovernmental organizations and media agencies without delay.

In its submission to the committee, Human Rights Watch also underscored the need for Uzbekistan to provide unhindered access for independent monitors, including at least eight UN special rapporteurs and other monitors who have not been allowed by the Uzbek government to visit the country despite repeated requests.  

Human Rights Watch called the committee's attention to the rampant practice of torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement officials to extract confessions and incriminating testimony from detainees, as well as the culture of impunity for those who commit torture. Uzbekistan has largely failed to implement recommendations to curb torture and ill-treatment by the Committee Against Torture and other UN expert bodies.

Human Rights Watch also called for an end to religious persecution in Uzbekistan, including de-criminalizing peaceful religious activity and freeing thousands of people in prison for their nonviolent religious expression. 

Over the last five years Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the government to allow an independent investigation into the massacre of hundreds of mostly unarmed protesters fleeing a demonstration in the city of Andijan in May 2005. The government has steadfastly refused to clarify the circumstances surrounding the massacre, or to hold accountable those responsible for the killings.

Government-sponsored forced child labor in the cotton sector remains widespread, despite laws in Uzbekistan and Uzbekistan's ratification of international treaties that prohibit forced child labor. The government closes schools and orders school officials to send children to the cotton fields during the harvest season. It sets centralized harvesting quotas for cotton and uses threats, harassment, and intimidation to ensure that those quotas are fulfilled. Children as young as 10 pick cotton for two months a year. They live in filthy conditions, contract illnesses, miss school, and work from early morning until evening daily for little or no money. Hunger, exhaustion, and heat stroke are common. At least five children died during the 2008 harvest, according to the Environmental Justice Foundation. Human Rights Watch is aware of several cases in which local authorities have harassed and threatened activists who have attempted to document the use of forced child labor.

"If the Uzbek government has nothing to hide, it should immediately allow independent human rights monitors to work without obstruction in the country," Cartner said. "The Human Rights Committee should stress that the government's claims of progress are not credible without independent monitoring and verification."

The upcoming Human Rights Committee review represents a rare opportunity for serious public scrutiny of the Uzbek government's human rights record at a time when EU and US pressure on Tashkent on this score is rapidly waning, said Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch urged Uzbekistan's international partners, in particular the United States government and European Union member states, to use the review to reinvigorate their engagement with Uzbekistan on human rights and to make implementation of the committee's recommendations an integral part of their dialogues with Tashkent.

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