The European Union and the United States should re-examine their relationships with the Uzbek government in light of its atrocious rights record, Human Rights Watch said today on the eve of the seventh anniversary of the government massacre at Andijan, Uzbekistan. Both the EU and the US have been enhancing their relationships with the Uzbek government.
“Seven years later, the EU and the US have yet to hold the Uzbek government accountable for the Andijan massacre and for the repression that continues unabated to this day,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Uzbekistan’s partners should recognize the downward spiral in its human rights record since Andijan and reiterate calls for justice for this terrible atrocity.”
On May 13, 2005, hundreds of largely peaceful protesters were killed by Uzbek government forces indiscriminately and without warning. No one has been held accountable for the killings, nor has the Uzbek government ceased its relentless persecution of those it suspects of having ties to the protest and of human rights activists and others critical of the government.
The massacre, the Uzbek government’s refusal to allow an international investigation, and the ensuing crackdown led the EU to impose sanctions in October 2005 and to establish human rights criteria for the Uzbek government. The Uzbek government has not met those criteria, Human Rights Watch said. But the EU gradually eased the sanctions and in 2009 lifted them completely.
The EU overall is deepening its engagement in Uzbekistan. In January 2011, the European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, received the Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, in Brussels and the EU has opened an EU delegation in Tashkent.
The EU’s readiness to deepen its relationship with Uzbekistan without requiring human rights improvements contrasts with its recent rethinking of its relationships with autocratic governments in the Middle East, Human Rights Watch said. In March 2011, Štefan Füle, the European commissioner for enlargement and the EU’s neighborhood policy, told the European Parliament that “too many of us fell prey to the assumption that authoritarian regimes were a guarantee of stability in the region.” He said the EU should be on the side of people striving to promote European values.
As a condition for deeper engagement with the Uzbek government, the EU should insist that it fulfill the human rights criteria attached to the EU’s post-Andijan sanctions, Human Rights Watch said. It also should release all imprisoned human rights defenders and political prisoners; allow unimpeded operation of nongovernmental organizations in the country; cooperate fully with all relevant UN human rights experts monitoring various human rights issues; guarantee freedom of speech and of the media; implement the conventions against child labor; and fully align its election processes with Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) standards.
The United States is also pursuing a policy of re-engagement with Uzbekistan. Congress has expressly restricted assistance to Uzbekistan based on its deplorable human rights record and further tightened those restrictions following the Andijan massacre. But in a controversial move in September, the Obama administration sought to re-start assistance and to provide direct military aid, also known as Foreign Military Financing (FMF), to Uzbekistan in 2012. News media reports following the move quoted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as saying that Uzbekistan was “showing signs of improving its human rights record and expanding political freedoms.”
“Claims of progress in Uzbekistan’s human rights record are simply not credible,” Williamson said. “From continuing prosecutions of journalists to religious persecution to the practice of forced child labor in the cotton sector, the Uzbek government has seemingly hardened its resolve to violate basic rights. Undue praise from the West will not encourage better behavior; only meaningful policy consequences will.”
Uzbekistan is seen as a critical stop in the Northern Distribution Network, through which the United States has sent non-lethal supplies to Afghanistan since 2009, as an alternative to what are viewed as unstable supply lines through Pakistan. Uzbekistan expelled the United States from the Karshi-Khanabad base in July 2005, just after refugees from Andijan were airlifted from Kyrgyzstan to Romania with US assistance.
A US visa ban on Uzbek officials went into effect in summer 2008, and restrictions on foreign assistance remain in place. But it is not clear what steps the administration has taken to promote implementation of the human rights benchmarks attached to the legislation as part of its dialogue with the Uzbek government. The benchmarks include investigating and prosecuting those responsible for the Andijan massacre, establishing a genuine multi-party system, and ensuring freedom of expression.
“Washington, Brussels, and Berlin should not allow Uzbekistan’s standing as a strategic partner to distort reality about the government’s deplorable record,” Williamson said. “The seventh anniversary of the Andijan massacre is an opportunity for them to set the record straight and underscore Tashkent’s urgent need to end rights violations.”
While relations between Uzbekistan and its Western partners have essentially normalized, there is no evidence of improvements in Uzbekistan’s human rights record or any sign of political will to address the rampant human rights abuses in Uzbekistan.