(Berlin) – Central Asian leaders who are seeking greater regional cooperation and international investment to bolster economic growth should place human rights at the top of their agenda, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2019. In recent years, some of Central Asia’s leaders have focused on the need to improve infrastructure and education and modernize the region’s economy but have failed to show their commitment to a future built on rule of law and human rights.
In 2018, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan initiated greater cross-border cooperation and took notable steps to improve the domestic human rights situation. In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, blatant attacks on media and speech freedoms became less frequent in the first year of Soronbay Jeenbekov’s presidency, although other long-term human rights concerns were not addressed. In the rest of the region, negative trends intensified, with Tajikistan and Turkmenistan continuing a slide into ever-more-repressive policies, and no meaningful human rights improvements in Kazakhstan. In 2018, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan followed Kazakhstan in seeking upgraded relations with the European Union.
“To improve the lives of Central Asia’s 105 million residents, human rights improvements need to go hand-in-hand with economic growth and regional cooperation,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Central Asia’s leadership should start by allowing critical voices to be heard and ending the worst abuses such as politically motivated imprisonment and torture.”
In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.
Kazakhstan clamped down heavily on free speech, assembly, and association. The government continued to seriously restrict independent trade union activism and denied registration to an independent trade union confederation. Despite promises, it did not amend the 2014 trade union law to ease restrictions. Two imprisoned trade union leaders were released, but another union leader is under criminal investigation on spurious charges. The rights activist Maks Bokaev remained wrongfully imprisoned. A court banned an opposition movement as “extremist” and authorities targeted its supporters.
The wrongful imprisonment of the human rights defender Azimjon Askarov is a dark stain on Kyrgyzstan’s human rights record. While blatant attacks on media freedoms became less frequent in 2018, other human rights violations persisted, including violence against women and torture. Continued use of an overbroad definition of “extremism” and unjustified prosecutions for possession of extremist materials, coupled at times with breaches of due-process, meant the country’s efforts at counterextremism led to many human rights violations.
Tajikistan’s human rights record worsened as authorities deepened the crackdown on free expression and association, peaceful political opposition activity, the independent legal profession, and the independent exercise of religious faith. Over 150 political activists, including a number of lawyers and journalists, remain unjustly jailed, and Tajik authorities continued to orchestrate violent retaliation against the relatives of dissidents who live outside of the country.
Turkmenistan remains one of the world’s most isolated and oppressively governed countries. In 2018, the country faced a severe economic crisis, including food shortages. Yet the government blocked people from the most seriously affected regions from traveling to seek work elsewhere. It also evicted homeowners and demolished houses in the capital, Ashgabat, and its suburbs without providing adequate compensation. The government punishes all forms of religious and political expression and has tightened control over access to information.
Beginning his third year as Uzbekistan’s president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev took some promising reform steps. A detained journalist and other long-serving political prisoners were released, the environment improved for independent media, and there was evidence that the government was working to combat forced labor in the cotton sector. At the same time, the Uzbek government remained authoritarian and many promising reforms have not been carried out yet. The security services retain vast powers, free elections and political pluralism are distant dreams, and thousands of people remain in prison on politically motivated charges.
“The United States, EU, and other partners should make it clear to leaders in Central Asia that any reform agenda without human rights improvements will certainly fall short,” Williamson said. “Human rights and greater accountability should be at the heart of any growth or investment strategies to truly respond to the aspirations of citizens in Central Asia.”