Skip to main content

Ten years ago security forces gunned down hundreds of protesters in the city of Andjian, eastern Uzbekistan. The massacre on May 13, 2005 was one of the largest mass killings in the former Soviet Union outside of an armed conflict since the fall of Communism. It sent shockwaves around the world, highlighting the brutal human rights record of Uzbekistan’s authoritarian president, Islam Karimov, who remains in power.

Following Tashkent’s refusal to allow an independent investigation, Germany, as an European Union member, placed limited sanctions on Tashkent. But within a few months, Berlin took the lead in seeking to lift those sanctions, arguing that engaging -- not confronting -- such governments was the best way to improve human rights.

Many believe Germany’s approach had more to do with Berlin’s controversial decision to continue using the Termez airbase in Uzbekistan to support its troops in neighboring Afghanistan – a deal still in effect.

Germany says that promoting human rights is central to its foreign policy approach. But it confronts a fundamental question regarding Uzbekistan and other highly abusive governments: How to promote human rights while protecting its economic and security interests. Germany’s highly problematic decade of dealing with Uzbekistan illustrates the pitfalls of getting the answer wrong, but also shows what should change.

On the night of May 12-13, 2005 armed gunmen broke into Andijan city prison and released 23 local businessmen who were on trial for “religious extremism.” In the morning, the businessmen’s supporters and thousands of others in Andijan’s Bobur square vented grievances about Uzbekistan’s grinding poverty and government repression.

Uzbek security forces indiscriminately shot into the crowd. Later troops blocked off the square and opened fire, killing and wounding civilians, most of them unarmed, en masse. Security forces then swept through the area, executing some wounded where they lay.

Despite such brutality, and Tashkent’s crackdown on human rights activists and witnesses to the massacre, German diplomats, working under Frank Walter Steinmeier in his first term as foreign minister, argued that the EU sanctions – including visa bans on key government officials and an arms embargo -- only served to alienate Tashkent.

Between 2005 and 2009, when the final sanctions were lifted, Germany paid Tashkent 67.9 million euros for the use of Termez, sending entirely the wrong signal on the need to respect human rights. It is not surprising Berlin tried to withdraw the figures after they became public in 2011.

Germany has consistently contended that improving human rights in Uzbekistan is a foreign policy priority, creating human rights dialogues and training programs with Tashkent, and saying it consistently urges the Uzbek government to end abuses. Unlike Gerhard Schroeder, her predecessor, chancellor Angela Merkel has declined to meet with president Karimov.

It is a bitter irony then that the one point where German diplomats and human rights groups largely agree is that human rights in Uzbekistan have largely not improved or have worsened in the last decade. German diplomats contend that such authoritarian, isolated governments are difficult to influence. Yet if human rights are indeed important, Germany must ask itself why its approach has failed.

Human Rights Watch is banned from working normally in Uzbekistan, but last November I was given a visa, part of an apparent attempt by Tashkent to create the impression of movement on human rights. What I gathered from the few human rights activists still able to work despite constant harassment, was evidence of the complete muzzling of independent media and the political opposition, forced adult labor in the country’s cotton fields and the jailing and torturing of government critics.

I vividly recall meeting Ozoda Yakubova, whose husband, Azam Farmonov, an imprisoned human rights activist was tortured in jail with a sealed gas mask placed on his head to simulate suffocation. She had hoped he would be released this spring after nine years, but it looks like his term will be extended for trumped-up “violations of prison rules.”

One commonly drawn conclusion by critics of Germany’s approach is that Berlin sees human rights as less important than co-operation with Tashkent on Termez and other security issues. Germany’s reluctance to confront Tashkent with consequences for refusal to improve human rights has made it easy for the government to shrug off Berlin’s concerns.

Concerted international pressure on Uzbekistan can work. Tashkent’s decision since 2013 to send fewer children to the fields to pick the annual cotton harvest was a result of international pressure by nongovernmental groups, backed by threats of trade and other restrictions by some governments.

As well as adopting a tougher approach in bilateral relations, Germany could work with other EU countries to press the UN Human Rights Council to appoint a special rapporteur on human rights in Uzbekistan. This would bring an important element of public scrutiny to Tashkent’s abysmal record, which the government is desperate to avoid.

At a time when Germany’s Afghanistan military engagement is significantly reduced, Germany needs to decide whether the protection of human rights really is a core element of its relationship with Tashkent, and if so to act accordingly. Ten years on from Andijan, it’s high time to do the right thing.


Hugh Williamson is director, Europe & Central Asia, Human Rights Watch, and is based in Berlin.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.