Congress, or at least parts of it, is getting restless with the White House approach to human rights abuses in Central Asia. A recent hearing by the House of Representatives’ Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on the region’s terrible human rights record, and the implications for U.S. policy, is the latest example. Led by Co-Chairman Jim McGovern (D) of Massachusetts, members asked tough questions that revealed an interest in strengthening the U.S. government’s approach to this increasingly authoritarian area of the world.
Testimony by State Department officials and other panelists, including Sanjar Umarov, a former political prisoner and torture victim from Uzbekistan, demonstrated that Washington’s policy—which consists largely of publishing yearly critical reports and raising cases with authorities in closed-door negotiations—doesn’t adequately address the scope and scale of abuses in Central Asia, nor the downward spiral in rights. As Deputy Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Rights, and Labor Rob Bershinski noted, the entire region has witnessed “severely problematic elections” and “the intensification of heavy-handed policies, including detentions, torture, and punishment of peaceful religious activities and expression under the guise of ‘countering extremism.’”
Among serious abuses in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are torture, restrictions on religious freedom, discrimination against LGBT people, and a failure to prevent and punish domestic violence or provide remedies for its victims. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in particular have long shut their borders to critics, squeezing the life out of domestic activists through harassment and imprisonment.
Frustrated with the Obama administration’s deepening military cooperation with the region, McGovern criticized the decision to provide Tashkent with over 300 Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles (MRAPs): “Sometimes I feel especially because of the region that we’re talking about that we have kind of looked the other way too often on human rights abuses…because it fit into our priorities in Afghanistan.”
Echoing McGovern, Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) identified a key problem in the current strategy, saying that if countries are not required to show any progress on human rights, and “there’s no consequence or even an expectation of changed behavior, is it actually an effective way to approach this set of issues?”
Uzbekistan is a perfect example. There is no evidence that officials who oversee or engage in torture, forced labor, or the persecution of activists will change their behavior absent the prospect of serious political or economic consequences. Human rights there have gone from bad to worse even during increased contacts and military cooperation between Washington and Tashkent since 2009.
During that same span, however, the country remained on the State Department’s list of “countries of particular concern” for its serial violations of religious freedom. The only exception to the trend has been Tashkent’s decision in 2013 to stop forcing children to pick cotton in the fields every autumn. That change came only after a robust, public campaign to boycott Uzbek cotton by over 175 major apparel brands, including The Gap, Walmart, and H&M, and the State Department’s designation of Uzbekistan as a country that engages systematically in human trafficking, which carries the potential for sanctions.
Washington has the tools it needs to encourage reform, but isn’t using them, despite a much-reduced need to rely on Tashkent’s assistance in allowing its territory for the transit of US troop supplies out of Afghanistan. Moreover, fears that stronger criticism over rights will lead Uzbekistan to embrace the Kremlin’s expansive role in the region are not borne out by the facts. The authoritarian president, Islam Karimov, needs (and craves) Western support—and the legitimacy that comes with it—a great deal more than the West needs him, especially in light of his own concerns about the rising numbers of Central Asians joining the ranks of extremist groups like ISIS.
The White House and Congress should revise the current strategy to re-assert conditions on providing military aid in the Foreign Appropriations Act (which the Obama administration has waived every year since 2012), enact sanctions under the International Religious Freedom Act (also waived), and craft a visa ban and asset freeze for officials responsible for serious abuses.
McGovern emphasized this last point saying that the US government needs to tell people entrenched in governments with horrendous human rights records that, “[I]f you are not going to get justice within your own country, understand there is a consequence outside of your country.”
Indeed, McGovern along with Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) introduced the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act (H.R. 624) in January, named after a Russian lawyer who died in jail after exposing financial fraud by officials. It would direct the president to place targeted visa and financial sanctions on individuals deemed responsible for “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” or officials responsible for “significant corruption.” A similar version was introduced in the Senate by Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.).
No matter where abuses are committed, the perpetrator could be denied entry to the U.S. and prevented from using its financial institutions. For Central Asia— which unlike other former Soviet countries falls outside the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights—a Global Magnitsky Act is a key tool and would build on existing executive branch efforts to sanction human rights abusers worldwide. Most important, it would signal to officials from Ashgabat to Dushanbe that abuses carry a price, and that Washington will back up what it says in annual human rights reports with action.
By asking the right questions, Congress has shown much-needed leadership on the terrible abuses afflicting an often neglected region. By most accounts, it looks like the Obama administration is failing to reverse its status quo policy, so it appears to be time for Congress to go beyond asking questions and start putting in place the answers.