Since coming to power four years ago, Uzbekistan’s president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev has been eager to improve relations with the EU. Under the long-serving authoritarian former president Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan was an international pariah - criticised for its atrocious rights record and kept out of international bodies.
Through savvy public relations campaigns and some nominal changes, Mirziyoyev has been at pains to shift that perception. If he succeeds, his prize will come in the next couple of months in the form of specialised European trade preferences that could bring in millions of euros.
In June, Uzbekistan applied to become a beneficiary of the EU’s Generalised System of Preferences (GSP+) scheme. Through this scheme, the EU grants preferential trade status to a select few countries to encourage sustainable development and good governance.
As a developing country, Uzbekistan has long received trade benefits under the standard GSP - but ascension to the GSP+ would double the number of goods that would receive lower tariffs. Trading with the world’s biggest market without tariffs would bring immense economic and financial benefits to Uzbekistan’s business and economic sectors. In exchange, Uzbekistan would need to ratify and effectively implement 15 core international human and labour rights conventions, as well as 12 international conventions related to the environment and governance principles.
Effective implementation is the key phrase here. While Uzbekistan has technically ratified all 27 of these conventions, the conventions have not been implemented effectively at all. The country’s record on human and labour rights and freedoms of the press are still extremely concerning and will demand particular scrutiny before the EU can consider allowing Uzbekistan to join.
For over 10 years, Uzbek Forum for Human Rights (the organisation I founded and direct) has documented issues of forced labour, corruption, and other human rights abuses across the country, as well as monitor the overall status of civil society. We have reported on a number of serious issues the EU must consider as part of their review.
A crushed Uzbek civil society still faces complicated, costly, and bureaucratic procedures to formally register NGOs, which would allow them to attract funding and operate with legitimacy. Human rights organisations, such as Chiroq, have been denied registration time and again on spurious grounds. Only one independent human rights organisation has been registered since President Mirziyoyev came to power in 2016, the second since 2013.
In the absence of an empowered civil society to hold power to account, all the greater is the role of the media to report and give voice to issues of concern to the people of Uzbekistan. Under President Mirziyoyev, the media landscape has enjoyed a relaxation of extreme censorship and independent online bloggers and media outlets have gained some freedoms to criticise those in high office.
However, on November 23, the Agency for Information and Mass Communications (AIMC) issued a warning to news site Kun.uz that it risked "serious legal consequences" for reporting on chronic gas and electricity shortages that are leaving people freezing in their homes during a pandemic, prompting some criticism from the diplomatic community in Tashkent. This is not the first time that AIMC has issued warnings to the press. In 2019, AIMC issued 150 submissions and warnings which could be grounds for shutting down a media outlet altogether. Freedom House’s Index of Internet Freedom of 2020 ranks Uzbekistan 27 out of 100 - a characterisation of "not free".
In Uzbekistan’s notoriously brutal agriculture sector, reforms that were supposed to modernise the sector are falling far short. These reforms were supported through millions of dollars of credit from international institutions, such as the International Finance Corporation and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, yet we’re still documenting human rights violations.
This year, for example, there were reports of heads of districts insulting and beating farmers who didn’t fulfill the state quotas for soya beans, cotton, or wheat. Farmers are highly vulnerable to extortion by officials due to their dependence on the authorities for their land lease agreements. In August this year, farmers were forced to contribute to a special fund to support the victims of the Sardoba dam collapse by donating their cattle.
At present, the annual cotton harvest is coming to a close, a massive undertaking that involves about 1.5 million people. Under President Karimov, the slave-like conditions endured by those picking the "white gold" were well-known. But while most pickers now work voluntarily, Uzbek Forum has documented the forced mobilisation of employees from public sector organisations and the extortion of employees to pay for replacement pickers.
As Brussels considers whether to allow Tashkent into its elite club of developing states deserving of extraordinary trade preferences, it must not compromise on the values and principles behind admission. While Uzbekistan has progressed from the dark days under President Karimov, it still has a long way to go. As negotiations move forward, the EU must use all available tools at its disposal to ensure that authorities are kept accountable and deliver on commitments made to ensure human and labour rights. The leverage exists now; but once Uzbekistan is granted GSP+, that will slip away.
- Umida Niyazova is the founder and director of Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, a German-based NGO dedicated to defending and promoting human rights in Uzbekistan
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