Uzbekistan is one of the world’s worst human rights abusers. Forced labour and child labour in the cotton industry, thousands of jailed political activists and torture are some of the most cited abuses on the Central Asian country’s long charge sheet. Suppressing media freedom, making arbitrary arrests, and cracking down on religious groups are other serious blemishes on the ex-Soviet republic’s record.
Such violations were commonplace under the late Islam Karimov’s regime, with the worst instance being the 2005 Andijan massacre, when interior ministry and security service troops fired at a crowd of protesters. The official death count was 187, but independent reports claimed more than 1,500 were killed.
But the tide, it seems, has turned since the coming to power of Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev in September 2016.
Mirziyoyev has moved to make amends for some of the previous president’s actions by releasing many wrongfully imprisoned activists and journalists among others. The list of the released includes Samandar Qoqonov, dubbed "Uzbekistan’s longest-held political prisoner”, and Muhammad Bekjon, a journalist held for nearly 18 years behind bars.
Improvements in media and activist group freedom were noted during United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein’s historic visit to the country.
“I was particularly struck by yesterday’s meeting with members of civil society. Firstly, the attendance was high – some 60 people in all (twice as many people as we were expecting) – from different segments of civil society, including some of those most critical of the authorities,” Zeid said in the statement in May. “Secondly, several participants expressed very forthright opinions, yet there seemed to be little or no anxiety about the presence of numerous TV cameras, including state television,” he added.
Forced labour and child labour was announced as being next on Mirziyoyev's list of priorities to tackle. His efforts were recognised by the European Parliament, as it approved a textiles trade deal with Uzbekistan last December, ending a five-year stalemate. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) went as far as reporting child labour was officially phased out in the cotton industry.
That, however, was later contradicted by a report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in June, which slammed both the ILO and the World Bank for turning a blind eye to the continued use of child labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry.
Yet a week later, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan Abdulaziz Komilov invited HRW back into the country. The welcome news was accompanied by a note from the BBC’s Uzbek Service revealing its plans to reopen its office in Uzbekistan after getting kicked out of the country in 2005. Uzbekistan’s willingness to engage would seem like a sign of a commitment to fix its human rights issues.
However, Steve Swerdlow, a longtime researcher on Central Asia for HRW, believes that’s not necessarily the case. What the step towards cooperation does not confirm is Uzbekistan’s willingness to play fair with journalists and researchers, he says. After all, even under Karimov, the closed country used to allow foreign media to operate. The conditions for their work, however, were far from ideal.
Between 2005-2010, “the government would often use the threat of revoking the accreditation of our international representatives in order to keep us away from sensitive topics”, Swerdlow says. This was particularly true after the Adijan massacre, which led to the exodus of the BBC from the Central Asian nation because of harassment by the authorities.
Swerdlow says ILO’s recent positive findings about the state of child labour in the country follow a familiar pattern. “I think because Uzbekistan is such a controlled environment, we feel the independence of ILO’s findings were compromised by the participation of Uzbek government officials,” he says.
“The question is, will the government allow reporters and human rights correspondents to do their job without interfering?” Swerdlow says. “Is it really the case that when we get to Tashkent, the government would allow NGO representatives to go about their work consistently with their charters and obligations?”
In other words, just because Uzbekistan is inviting foreign media and watchdogs back into the country, the tactics may not have changed.
Some of the ways in which the new Uzbek leader has approached human rights so far suggest he is not sincerely trying to clean up the country’s atrocious record, he argues.
“Uzbekistan still has one of the worst human rights records across a very wide spectrum of issues – whether its over a million people forced to pick cotton, or it’s torture, or 10,000 or so political prisoners, near total censorship of internet,” Swerdlow says. “The [prisoners] who were released [by Mirziyoyev], were not released quickly. These are elderly and sick individuals – none of them posed a ‘risk’ of being able to actively take up human rights work.”
“Most of these human right abuses could be ended with a stroke of a pen – prisoners could be released, journalists can be allowed to come, torture can be prohibited,” Swerdlow explains, referring to Mirziyoyev’s absolute power.
“The [Uzbek government’s] statements are welcome but far from enough…[until] we see any actual evidence of improvement,” Swerdlow says.