Uzbek human rights progressing, but more work to do

Uzbek human rights progressing, but more work to do
Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev is building his reforms on improving the life of his citizens and human rights is a key element of that. Progress has been made, but there is still a long way to go. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Tashkent July 7, 2023

Uzbekistan has long had a poor human rights image, but as part of the wide-ranging reforms introduced by Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, improving the country’s human rights record and image is part of his agenda. A lot of progress has been made, but much work still needs to be done.

“Since President Mirziyoyev assumed power as interim president in September 2016, a major agenda of reforms has been introduced in Uzbekistan. In this broader agenda, judicial and governance reform has been identified as key to the entire reform process. The scope and speed of reforms outlined in this study are bold and unprecedented,” Silk Road Studies said in a report on Uzbek human rights.

Silk Road Studies concludes that while Uzbekistan has suffered a poor press, including an accusation by former UK ambassador Craig Murry that prisoners were boiled to death, actually many reforms began circa 2005, although progress was very slow over the next decade. Since Mirziyoyev came to power they have accelerated dramatically.

“We have opened the border to 90 countries and have a visa-free regime. The work we have done on improving human rights has seen Uzbekistan ratings with all the major international organisations rising,” said Akmal Saidov, first deputy speaker of the Oliy Majlis, who is responsible for Human Rights. “It shows that Uzbekistan is becoming an increasingly open and free society.”

The most obvious success to date has been the end of child labour to bring in the cotton harvest. Uzbekistan was widely condemned for press-ganging young people into working in the cotton fields each year and its cotton was under sanction as a result. However, the practice has been abandoned and those sanctions were lifted in March 2022.

However, the repression of the Karimov-era has been steadily rolled back over the last seven years. Restrictions on international press operating in Uzbekistan were removed and correspondents welcomed back. Many political prisoners were released and the worst excesses of the police curbed.

A comprehensive judicial reform was launched as early as October 2016 to strengthen the protection of rights and freedoms and was followed up by a more comprehensive legal system reform decree in 2017.

After being elected president in January 2017, Mirziyoyev announced a comprehensive “Five Point Development Strategy Plan” outlining policy priorities for a five-year period. This plan focused on: improving the system of state and social construction; strengthening the rule of law and the judicial system; developing and liberalising the economy; developing the social sphere, and improving security and implementing a balanced foreign policy

Legal reforms have further been bolstered by beefing up the rule of law and transparency rules for the judicial system in the recent changes to the constitution. Mirziyoyev's judicial reforms are built on a major effort at the Ministry of Justice in 2014-15 in the Karimov administration to improve the rule of law, but Mirziyoyev pushed this effort forward.

One of his major achievements was to overhaul the General Prosecutors office by appointing a new younger liberal head and his office has been populated with a new generation of younger, more progressive executives, amongst other things.

“The generational factor was important in this process: younger officials, often with foreign education, had begun to rise through the ranks and take on greater responsibilities,” Silk Road Studies reports. “The main legislative role in co-ordinating reforms was assigned to the Ministry of Justice, now staffed by an entirely new set of young officials… Many talented young officials have been promoted to responsible posts, including as ministers and deputy ministers. In addition, a position of State Adviser on Youth [Alisher Sadulleyev, who is only 26 and the youngest Senator ever to be appointed] has been added to the President’s Cabinet. The inclusion of the younger generation led the administration to begin to pulse with new ideas.”

Saidov highlights the recent amendments to the 1992 constitution where several rights were enshrined in basic law. Child labour has been outlawed and those with disabilities protected.

“This is a “social constitution” that now includes things like property rights, legal guarantees and an expanded chapter to better promote and protect civil society,” said Saidov.

In the old administration the police frequently abused their powers or were used as a tool of oppression by the powers that be, but the control over the authorities has been tightened by the judicial reforms and the updated constitution.

But much work still needs to be done. The most recent US human rights report for 2022 on Uzbekistan was very critical, and the Amnesty International report for the same year only slightly less so. The US gave a long shopping list of problems that includes: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings; torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment by the government; and more.

Whereas these and similar repression issues have long been a problem in Uzbekistan, since Mirziyoyev took over they have clearly been on the decline as he has ushered in a much more open administration that relies on genuine popular support, rather than Karimov’s repressive methods. For example, Mirziyoyev has ordered the local governments and Supreme Court to publish all their decisions online to improve transparency and improve the accountability of government, yet the US report makes no mention of the change in the climate in the country.

Political reforms

Part of the challenge is that while Mirziyoyev has made enormous progress in many economic, health and education reforms, he has left many of the political reforms untouched.

The most obvious example was the October 2021 presidential election, where President Mirziyoyev won re-election with 80.2% of the total votes.

“A genuine choice of political alternatives was not available to voters because true opposition candidates were unable to register or run for office,” the US report said. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) stated that “while election day was peaceful, significant irregularities were observed and important safeguards were often disregarded during voting, counting and tabulation.”

The Uzbek opposition parties did not participate in the elections and RFE/RL reports that opposition leaders in the country were harassed by the local security services and prevented from participating.

While OSCE observers that bne IntelliNews talked to one election day in Tashkent said they had not seen any voting abuses and that the government was “clearly interested in learning more about how to run clean elections”, this has yet to be translated into true political reforms.


The issues of abuse by the security forces and police came to the fore with riots that broke out in July 2022, when the government declared a state of emergency after large-scale protests broke out, and was the main focus for an Amnesty International report. Protesters were outraged by the proposed constitutional amendment that would end the region's autonomous status and remove its constitutional right to secede from the Republic.

President Mirziyoyev declared a state of emergency, and the government cut off the internet in the region and called up the National Guard to quell the protests, which ended by July 3. According to the government, “21 persons were killed (18 in the immediate aftermath, with three more dying in the hospital in the weeks after the protests), 243 were injured and 516 were detained,” Amnesty reports. “Although hard evidence was scarce, human rights activists said the number of dead and injured was higher than the official numbers.”

Human Rights Watch reported “security forces unjustifiably used lethal force and other excessive responses to disperse mainly peaceful demonstrators.”

Amnesty also reports that persons, including journalists, were detained and held incommunicado for weeks following the protests. The government established a commission to investigate the events led by Ombudsperson Feruza Eshmatova.

Mirziyoyev quickly backtracked on the constitutional change and removed the proposal to bring the crisis to an end.

“In the wake of the mass protests in Karakalpakstan, the authorities effectively controlled access to information and targeted Karakalpak bloggers and journalists who had criticised the constitutional amendments on their media platforms or participated in the protests,” Amnesty reports.

The whole incident was a black stain on the otherwise progressive Mirziyoyev administration, although the president moved decisively to de-escalate the incident. It also suggests the knee-jerk reaction of the authorities is to resort to the old repressive ways of dealing with popular dissent, until the president interceded to restore calm with a compromise. It also highlights the need for more and more extensive reforms to the police and security forces.

Despite the very welcome shake-up at the General Prosecutor’s office and the decrees issued in 2017 and more recently that have begun the work of improving the judiciary and strengthening the rule of law, these reforms remain pragmatic, for the most part, dealing with the basics like habeas corpus and the protection of property rights. A more comprehensive reform of police and security forces is still pending. 

The Ministry of Internal Affairs controls the police, who are responsible for law enforcement, maintenance of order, and the investigation of crimes. It also investigates and disciplines police officers if they are accused of human rights violations.

The National Guard provides for public order and the security of diplomatic missions, radio and television broadcasting, and other state entities.

Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces, but security services also permeated civilian structures.

The most powerful of all is the State Security Service, whose chairperson reports directly to the president, deals with national security and intelligence matters, including terrorism, corruption, organised crime, border control and narcotics, and remains available as a tool of repression.

“Civilian authority interactions with security services’ personnel were opaque, making it difficult to define the scope and limits of civilian authority. There were reports that members of the security and law enforcement agencies, particularly police and prison officials, committed abuses,” the US report says.

Gender politics and gay rights

Gay rights is another place where no progress has been made. Sexual relations between men remain illegal and currently 30 men are incarcerated for being gay, according to Amnesty International.

“Gender stereotypes and an emphasis on discriminatory traditional family values and cultural norms continued to significantly hinder progress in the realisation of the rights of women, girls and LGBTI people,” Amnesty said in its report.

In parallel with women’s rights, the new constitution also brought in protections for disabled people, who are typically sidelined and ignored in most Former Soviet Union (FSU) countries with the catch-all term “invalids,” irrespective of the severity or specific nature of their disabilities.

Uzbekistan is right at the beginning of what will be a long journey to accept equal rights for sexual minority groups. The UK sexual offences act that legalised homosexuality was only legislated in 1967 and it took another 47 years until the first gay marriage was celebrated in the UK. Amongst the former Warsaw pact countries, Estonia was the first to allow same-sex marriage last week. As bne IntelliNews has reported, the path of tolerance of gay rights can take 50 years and three generations and a very clear values fault line divides Europe in two.

The addition of gender equality provisions to protect women and ensure they are equally treated, as well as shielded from violence, is the first step in this very long journey and a good start, as there still many issues to be resolved in women’s rights to solve before much attention will be spent on dealing with sexual minority rights.

“A presidential decree on accelerating “systemic support of family and women”, which purported to provide for the “protection of rights and legitimate interests of women” [in 2022], instead prioritised family mediation and reconciliation over prosecution in cases of gender-based violence,” Amnesty said in its report.