This week’s annual gathering in Brussels between the EU’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, and her five Central Asian counterparts will take place in a context of both hope and fear. There’s hope of greater political will to leave some of the region’s most egregious violations behind. But there’s also fear, because repressive policies persist, and uncontested by the EU. It’s time for the EU to stop courting unaccountable oppressive leaders, and instead bank on the aspirations for a brighter, more democratic future in Central Asia.
Three years ago in Uzbekistan, dozens of journalists, opposition and human rights activists, and other critics were among the thousands of people jailed on politically motivated charges. The government had imposed a blanket ban on the freedoms of association, expression, and religion. International rights monitoring groups, including Human Rights Watch, had been banned from the country for years. Today, we are in Tashkent with a small team, heading to a human rights gathering in Samarkand and are planning to press the authorities to provide rehabilitation and assistance for former political prisoners.
Our capacity to work in Uzbekistan is not the only thing that has changed for the better there. Since the death of President Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan has freed more than 35 long-serving political prisoners, there is an increasingly open media environment, and some local officials have been held accountable for abuse or corruption.
But there’s still a long way to go.
Many promised reforms have yet to materialize, and the government remains authoritarian. Thousands of other people remain behind bars on politically motivated charges. The security services’ powers are overreaching, and free elections and political pluralism are distant dreams. Local authorities continue to forcibly mobilize public sector workers and students to pick cotton despite a public decree prohibiting forced labor.
But what the changes in Uzbekistan have shown is that political will can improve human rights, that citizens welcome those changes, and that they benefit the country’s international reputation.
This should be a lesson for how the EU deals with other leaders in the region, where it has sidelined human rights concerns when dealing with rulers mostly interested in consolidating their own power. The meetings this week are an opportunity for the EU to reset its approach and unequivocally press to end to the most egregious abuses that have traumatized the region’s people since their independence from Soviet rule.
The EU can start by taking a principled position against politically motivated detention of government critics and ill-treatment in detention. The continued detention of the human rights defender Azimjon Askarov in Kyrgyzstan is a stain in the country’s human rights record. Askarov was sentenced in 2010 to life i in prison following an unfair trial and serious allegations of ill-treatment and torture. He remains in prison even though the UN Human Rights Committee called for his immediate release. In Uzbekistan, the thousands who remain imprisoned on political or religious grounds should be immediately released.
In Kazakhstan, the authorities have used overly broad and vague criminal charges to lock up critics. Maks Bokaev, imprisoned in 2016 for his role organizing peaceful protests against land policies, serves an unfair five-year sentence. In Tajikistan, authorities have jailed over 150 activists, opposition leaders, lawyers and journalists, banned political opposition parties, and sought the extradition abroad of other peaceful activists in a deepening human rights crackdown.
In Turkmenistan, one of the world’s most isolated and oppressive countries, it is impossible to know how many people are jailed on politically motivated charges. But over 100, at minimum, remain forcibly disappeared and have not been allowed any contacts with their families and lawyers, some for as long as 16 years.
The European Union is right to support more active involvement of civil society and sees an independent and effective judiciary as cornerstones of democratization in Central Asia. But as long as human rights defenders, outspoken critics, and average citizens face years of possible detention or brutal treatment for exercising their basic rights, democracy in Central Asia will remain a remote aspiration at best.
In Samarkand today, as well as in Tashkent and in Brussels, the Uzbek government is eager to showcase its promising reforms to international partners. It is too early to tell whether they will become systematic or institutional. But as far as EU policy in the region in concerned, this is a unique opportunity to loudly say that there should be no turning back on basic human rights.
Philippe Dam is the Europe advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.