In his first year in power, Uzbekistan’s new President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has inspired some hope the Central Asian country can turn a page from the dark legacy of President Islam Karimov, whose long rule was marred by terrible human rights abuses.
Today at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, UN members will have a chance to assess Uzbekistan’s progress on human rights and recommend concrete improvements, as part of the Universal Periodic Review process.
Today’s hearing takes place just days before May 13, the 13th anniversary of the Andijan massacre, when hundreds of peaceful protesters were killed by security forces in the eastern city of Andijan.
During Uzbekistan’s last review in April 2013, many UN diplomats urged the Uzbek authorities to tackle gruesome abuses. Calls ranged from investigating the Andijan massacre and rampant use of torture, to releasing the thousands of political prisoners, and ending child and forced labor in the country’s cotton fields. At that time Uzbek officials responded largely with denials and obfuscation.
At today’s session there may be reasons for diplomats to change their tone – but few motives to change focus. Despite some positive steps, many problems remain and too few in-depth reforms are underway.
Mirziyoyev has freed dozens of political prisoners and introduced reforms designed to increase judicial independence. The most recent good news was the release of journalist Bobomurod Abdullaev and three others, after trumped-up extremism charges were largely dismissed. Restrictions on speech and assembly are being loosened and Mirziyoyev has committed to end forced labor. These are important steps.
But hundreds remain arbitrarily detained, and many face ill-treatment. Laws that allowed censorship or prevent independent nongovernmental organizations to register are still on the books. Nongovernmental organization monitors document serious cases of coercion to force students and workers to pick up cotton.
The UPR debate is a chance to highlight what a rights-respecting Uzbekistan could look like. That starts with calling for the release of all those still wrongfully detained and an end to the arbitrary extension of politically motivated sentences and measures to stop torture. It should also press for the lifting of media and nongovernmental organization restrictions, accountability for past abuses, including the Andijan massacre, and the effective end of adults forced labor in the cotton sector. The people of Uzbekistan are only starting now to see a future in which rights abuses and impunity wouldn’t be a daily routine. The UPR debate should do no less than supporting their hopes.