(Brussels) – The European Union’s (EU) effectiveness to promote rights improvements in Central Asia is hampered by its reticence to articulate clear expectations for reform and follow through with policy consequences when those expectations are not met, Human Rights Watch said today. EU foreign ministers on June 25, 2012, are to issue an assessment of the EU’s Central Asia Strategy, adopted five years ago.

“Affecting positive change in Central Asia isn’t easy, but being clear about expectations and linking closer engagement to progress is a good place to start,” said Veronika Szente Goldston, Europe and Central Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The EU has resisted doing this so far, but it’s not too late to set things right.”

The EU and its member states have important interests at stake in relations with Central Asia, such as access to energy supplies and raw materials, and security issues, especially in the context of Afghanistan, Central Asia’s neighbor. These interests should not be an excuse for downplaying the EU’s focus on human rights abuses in the region, however, Human Rights Watch said.

The governments of Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – all have distinctly poor human rights records and to various degrees resist meaningful reform, as documented in a new overview of concerns and recommendations by Human Rights Watch.

Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan stand out as particularly closed and repressive, clamping down on independent civil society activism and silencing critics through a combination of threats, harassment, and politically motivated imprisonment, Human Rights Watch said. The human rights situation in Kazakhstan, which used to compare favorably with its more repressive neighbors, has deteriorated markedly in the past 18 months. Meanwhile, it is pursuing upgraded relations with the EU, in the form of an enhanced partnership and cooperation agreement, giving the EU an important opportunity to press for much-needed rights reforms.

But the EU’s record on leveraging human rights progress in Central Asia has been patchy at best, Human Rights Watch said. It dropped its sanctions on Uzbekistan, even though the government had not met the criteria for ending them, and it is actively pursuing upgraded relations with Turkmenistan without requiring human rights steps in exchange.

Human Rights Watch said that the Central Asia Strategy’s promise to make human rights a “key area” for cooperation has in practice amounted to little more than the so-called “structured human rights dialogues.” These annual, senior-level official talks with each Central Asian country have been isolated dialogues with unclear objectives and outcomes, which appear to have had no bearing on the overall EU relationship with the countries concerned.

“The EU should not allow the human rights dialogues to serve as an excuse for not raising human rights concerns in other – more weighty – settings, or they’ll just weaken the role of human rights in EU policy, rather than strengthening it,” Szente Goldston said. “Even a cursory look at Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan should make painfully clear that engagement with no strings attached doesn’t produce any meaningful human rights improvements.”

The EU should also do more to reach out to and seek genuine partnerships with civil society in Central Asian countries. The EU should ensure that human rights defenders, many of whom work under extreme pressure and at great personal risk, feel truly heard and supported by the EU, Human Rights Watch said. 

Speaking out publicly about human rights concerns to create an official record of the EU’s position and intentions in the region is also critically important, not least given the closed nature of the Central Asian governments, Human Rights Watch said. To varying degrees, these governments seek to monopolize information about the conditions in their country and about the nature and direction of their relationship with the EU. In some of the Central Asian countries, particularly Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, EU-initiated exchanges on human rights have been one of the very few opportunities for human rights activists to learn about their government’s position on a particular human rights issue.

“Consultations and information-sharing with civil society through private meetings are of course welcome and important, but they cannot be a substitute for a fully transparent, official record of the content and outcome of human rights discussions,” Szente Goldston said.

Human Rights Watch urged the EU to use the 5-year review of its Central Asia Strategy as an opportunity to institute urgently needed changes to its approach, which include:

 

  • Overcoming its reticence toward setting conditions and benchmarks and clearly articulate the specific reform steps it seeks in each country. In the case of Uzbekistan, such steps have already been formulated by EU foreign ministers, in the context of the sanctions process, most recently in October 2010, and in the case of Turkmenistan, by the European Parliament, in 2008, and again in 2009. Neither set of required reforms is currently being actively enforced, however.
     
  • Engaging in sustained and active policy follow-up at all levels to secure compliance with the benchmarks, especially at the highest levels – including in EU member states’ bilateral relations. This entails raising human rights concerns at every opportunity, including publicly, to make clear the central role of the human rights demands in the relationship.
     
  • Mustering political will to impose policy consequences if reform expectations are not met. In the cases of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, the prospect of enhanced relations should be used to leverage human rights progress by being conditioned on the governments’ progress in meeting reform expectations. On Uzbekistan, EU member states should set a clear timeline for the government to heed, once and for all, the EU’s human rights criteria or face concrete consequences, including the prospect of renewed restrictions on its relationship. The European Parliament set a positive example in December, rejecting a proposed reduction of EU textile tariffs for Uzbekistan until the government grants access for international monitors for its cotton harvest and takes concrete steps to end forced child labor, introducing much-needed conditionality in the EU-Uzbekistan relationship.

 

“Ineffectual EU policy toward Central Asia isn’t just an abstract failure or squandered opportunity, but has real impact on people’s lives,” Szente Goldston said. “It’s time for an EU policythat has at its core the advancement of tangible improvements for those suffering human rights abuses in Central Asia.”