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Letter to the Editor Regarding German Foreign Minister Westerwelle's Visit to Turkmenistan

In response to article "In einer weit, weit entfernten Galaxie" by Daniel Broessler

Published in: Süddeutsche Zeitung

Daniel Broessler’s story (18 November 2011) on Guido Westerwelle’s recent trip to Turkmenistan captures the country’s many bizarre, and worrying sides.

Mr Broessler was one of the few people to hear of the foreign minister’s visit before it happened. The Central Asian state has huge energy reserves that Germany would like to tap, and a strategic location neighbouring Afghanistan. It also has one of the worst human rights records in the world, with credible reports from the United Nations and elsewhere of widespread torture, forced disappearances and repression of all critical voices.  

These are issues of interest to the German public, but the Foreign Ministry only announced details of the visit, on 16 November, hours after Mr Westerwelle had landed in Ashgabat, the capital. Both Human Rights Watch and members of the German press were aware of the visit several days in advance, but Berlin refused to confirm it until after it had started.

Why? Human Rights Watch was told by the Foreign Ministry press office simply that it releases information “when it sees fit.” This is not good enough. I suspect the reticence was to avoid critical questions about whether Mr Westerwelle would use the visit not only to pursue energy deals but also to raise human rights concerns.

EU foreign ministers have pledged to press for human rights improvements in Turkmenistan. They made their promise in response to concerns expressed by the European Parliament about the appalling state of human rights there and the EU’s controversial quest to upgrade relations with the country’s government.  

One can debate the best ways to address human rights concerns as part of efforts to build relations with countries such as Turkmenistan. I would argue that articulating concrete expectations of improvements at the outset would both be good for the cause of human rights in Turkmenistan and reduce risks for Germany in establishing energy ties with such a regime.

But such a debate is only possible if Mr Westerwelle is transparent about what he is up to, as befits a democratic government.  His apparent efforts to avoid critical discussion let down people in Turkmenistan and do a disservice to Germany’s reputation.

Hugh Williamson is the Berlin-based director of the Europe & Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch

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