We've just heard that Uzbek President Islam Karimov has "postponed" his visit to Prague, scheduled to start on February 20. This follows a campaign by over 30 organizations, including Human Rights Watch, to get the visit cancelled. The announcement is good news for all those who care about human rights abuses in Uzbekistan.
We were initially surprised that Czech President Milos Zeman had invited Karimov, given Tashkent's atrocious human rights record, and even if this latest move is simply a face-saving way out of a diplomatic dilemma, it is definitely a positive development.
What this alone doesn’t change, however, is the grim situation of people in Uzbekistan. They still face systematic torture in police custody and in prisons. Human rights defenders, journalists, and other peaceful activists are still held on politically motivated charges, and thousands of people are still locked up simply for practicing their religion.
There is still no freedom of speech or assembly.
The government still closes hundreds of high schools, colleges, universities, and other public services every year to force over a million children and adults to pick cotton for little or no pay.
However, at least Karimov won’t be able to parade on Uzbek TV news, showing how respected he is internationally, when he’s not. That is some small success.
And more importantly, this achievement brings satisfaction to many in Uzbekistan and in Uzbek civil society broadly who have here an example of how they effectively used leverage – through a democratic society and responsive government like the one in Prague – to effect change. This sense of empowerment is critical, as Uzbeks so often feel they have no influence over their society, their government, their future...
This small episode shows that's not the case, and no matter how much time passes, or how "strategic" Uzbekistan gets, rights abuses like the Andijan Massacre in 2005 won't be forgotten. Pressure can work, and accountability is the way to move forward against a leader who has been so dogged in dismissing human rights concerns for more than two decades.
It may seem a symbolic victory, but for those Uzbek activists who raised their voices on this, such symbols matter hugely.