(Washington, DC) – The US administration should raise Uzbekistan’s abysmal human rights record at bilateral talks on December 1-2 and consider tough measures – including targeted sanctions – if concrete improvements are not made urgently. A tough, no-holds-barred approach could help mitigate some aspects of Tashkent’s ongoing rights crackdown.
“It should be made clear to Uzbek officials that their government’s continuing repression will result in meaningful, and if need be, punitive policy consequences,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Knowing they’ll be held to account for abusive conduct might make Uzbek authorities think twice.”
The US-Uzbekistan Annual Bilateral Consultations (ABCs) are one of the most prominent contacts between the two governments each year, and take place in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. The co-chairs are US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Nisha Biswal, and Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov. Although human rights issues are regularly raised by some US officials, there is still no central, coordinated US strategy that would likely create greater pressure on the Uzbek government to improve its woeful record on torture, the ongoing imprisonment of government critics and religious believers, and the widespread use of forced labor.
The US administration should be prepared to impose targeted restrictive measures such as visa bans and asset freezes on officials found to be responsible for egregious human rights abuses. It should also consider restrictions on military assistance to the Uzbek government.
There was no discernible improvement in Uzbekistan’s atrocious rights record in 2014. Uzbekistan’s authoritarian president, Islam Karimov, who entered his 25th year in power, continues to employ a pervasive security apparatus to monitor and crack down on activities of real and perceived opponents.
Authorities repress all forms of freedom of expression and do not allow any organized political opposition, independent media, free trade unions, independent civil society organizations, or religious freedom. Those who attempt to assert their rights, or act in ways deemed contrary to state interests, face arbitrary detention, lack of due process, and torture. Forced labor of adults and children during the cotton harvest continues.
The Uzbek government has imprisoned thousands of people on politically motivated charges locking up human rights and opposition activists, journalists, religious believers, artists, and other perceived critics. Many are in serious ill-health, have been tortured, and had their sentences arbitrarily extended in prison.
The United States has responded to some of these developments, and the State Department’s annual country report on Uzbekistan recognized a wide spectrum of human rights abuses by the government. But the US administration has preferred a policy of private dialogue, and so far resisted imposing any serious policy consequences for the deplorable abuses taking place.
The US has viewed Tashkent as a key ally along the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), through which the US is withdrawing supplies from the war in Afghanistan. However, US officials now acknowledge that the transit routes are less important, because most military supplies have already been withdrawn from the region.
In June 2014, for the second year in a row, the State Department’s human trafficking report placed Uzbekistan in the lowest category –“Tier III” – based on Tashkent’s systematic use of forced labor. And for six consecutive years now, the State Department has designated Uzbekistan as a “country of particular concern” due to its crackdown on religious freedom. But the White House has not imposed sanctions for these violations, citing national security grounds.
But while significant, these interventions have not kept pace with the scope and severity of the abuses in Uzbekistan. Nor has the full spectrum of diplomatic opportunities and tools been tapped to raise concerns or press for redress.
As well as considering targeted sanctions, as a member of the UN Human Rights Council the United States should also seek to establish a special rapporteur devoted to Uzbekistan’s atrocious human rights record.
Earlier this week, eight US Senators wrote to Uzbek President Islam Karimov and raised the continued imprisonment of journalists and activists in Uzbekistan, stating that “the lack of progress toward resolving these cases is an impediment to further cooperation between our two countries.”
“Despite several years of closer ties with Washington, the current strategy of private dialogue has failed to bring about real results, with President Karimov making his hostility toward peaceful criticism painfully clear,” said Swerdlow. “It is time Washington tells President Karimov that there will be a serious price to pay unless his government stops imprisoning and torturing peaceful activists, journalists, and religious believers. The ABCs provide an important platform for the broad range of US agencies to push Uzbekistan hard on its rights record.”