(Frankfurt) – The Asian Development Bank (ADB) and its shareholder countries should ensure that the views of people living in poverty are central to its work, the Cotton Campaign, Human Rights Watch, and Urgewald said today. This is particularly important in repressive environments like in Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan.

Child picking cotton in September 2012, Suyima Pakhtakor, Jizzakh.

© 2012 Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights

The Asian Development Bank, a multilateral finance institution based in Manila, will hold its 49th annual board of governors meeting in Frankfurt from May 2-5, 2016. The theme of the Bank’s meeting is “Cooperating for Sustainability.”

“Development efforts can only be sustainable when they are supported by and benefitting communities rather than senior government officials,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “In repressive countries like Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, the Asian Development Bank needs to go the extra mile to make sure that development efforts benefit people rather than reinforce abuse.”

The repressive environments in Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan are not conducive to facilitating community participation in the bank’s projects, the groups said. Nor is it an environment in which people can complain without risk of reprisal when the government violates the Asian Development Bank’s safeguards.

In Uzbekistan, the bank’s irrigation and agricultural modernization projects benefit the government’s abusive cotton industry, the groups said. The Uzbek government uses forced labor systematically throughout the cotton industry. The government forces farmers to deliver production quotas and forces more than a million people to weed cotton fields and pick cotton each year.

Penalties exacted and threatened against farmers for failure to deliver the state-assigned production quotas include confiscation of land, crops, and livestock. Penalties against the students, teachers, nurses, doctors, employees of other public-sector institutions, and businesses required to work in the cotton fields include expulsion from school and job loss.

“The Cotton Campaign shares the ADB’s goals of improved irrigation and agricultural methods in Uzbekistan,” said Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, a Cotton Campaign member. “But the bank-financed projects benefiting the cotton industry are also contributing to the Uzbek government’s forced-labor system of cotton production.”

Since joining the ADB in 1999, Azerbaijan has received US$2.3 billion in loans and grants across several sectors, including energy and transportation.

Azerbaijan’s government has escalated repression against its critics in recent years, a dramatic deterioration in an already poor rights record. It has arrested or imprisoned dozens of human rights defenders, journalists, and bloggers on politically motivated charges, prompting others to flee the country or go into hiding. Azerbaijan has also frozen bank accounts of independent civic groups and their leaders, impeding their work, and in some cases forcing them to shut down.

Although, since March, the authorities have pardoned or conditionally released over a dozen human rights defenders, activists, and journalists imprisoned on politically motivated charges, many others remain behind bars. Also, while the authorities unfroze bank accounts of some nongovernmental groups and their leaders, existing legislative restrictions make it effectively impossible for these groups to use the funds in their accounts. Azerbaijani laws on nongovernmental groups also make it effectively impossible to receive foreign funding.

The Asian Development Bank already has emphasized the role of community participation in development projects, as well as transparency and accountability. But it cannot put these principles into practice in Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, where the government quashes independent voices – unless it recognizes the problems and starts actively working to overcome them, the groups said.

In Azerbaijan, the Panama papers have exposed evidence indicating that the family of President Ilham Aliyev has extensive secret offshore accounts, with various business interests including in gold mining. A year ago, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which promotes good governance of resource-rich countries, downgraded Azerbaijan’s status because of its flagrant disregard for fundamental freedoms.

In Uzbekistan, income from cotton sales disappear into the Selkhozfond, an extra-budgetary fund to which only the highest-level officials have access. Government officials extorted payments from individuals and businesses that it determined had not contributed enough to the cotton harvest.

“Extortion and secret accounts amount to a significant unaccounted-for subsidy to the Uzbek government from the Uzbek people,” Niyazova said.

Uzbekistan has also long used violence and baseless criminal charges to silence independent voices, including those who monitor the cotton sector’s labor practices. In May 2015, police arrested Elena Urlaeva while she was documenting forced mobilization of teachers and physicians to prepare the cotton fields and subjected her to a body-cavity search. They arrested her again on September 19 after she spoke with and photographed cotton pickers and again on September 29, together with a journalist, Malohat Eshonqulova, as they interviewed students forced to pick cotton. Police ordered body-cavity searches of the two women during a 14-hour detention.

Also in September, police arrested and beat Dmitry Tikhonov after he interviewed people and photographed the mobilization of cotton pickers. The following month, police filed charges against Tikhonov for “disorderly conduct” as a result of his monitoring activity. On the same day, his home office was burned down and materials were confiscated from a room in his house untouched by the fire. Continued intimidation by security services forced Mr. Tikhonov to flee Uzbekistan.

On November 16, 2015, police arrested another independent monitor, Uktam Pardaev, confiscated his files, computer, and camera – including evidence of forced labor he had gathered and reported during the 2015 cotton harvest – and brought spurious charges against him. Police detained him for two months, subjected him to beatings, and released him on January 11, 2016 under the condition that he would no longer report on human rights concerns.

In a letter to the bank’s president, Takehiko Nakao, Human Rights Watch and the Cotton Campaign urged the bank to suspend projects that benefit the cotton sector in Uzbekistan until the government takes meaningful steps toward eliminating forced labor, including by allowing journalists and independent groups to monitor and report on labor practices without risk of retaliation and making cotton spending and income transparent.

“The Asian Development Bank has an important role to play in supporting governments to meet people’s social and economic needs, but only when it listens and hears what people’s needs are and how best to meet them,” Williamson said.