European Union-imposed sanctions are having no effect on altering Uzbekistan's authoritarian behavior, representatives of Human Rights Watch assert. The German government's refusal to investigate a former top Uzbek government official's role in the May 2005 Andijan massacre underscores the EU's faulty approach on trying to get Tashkent to improve its rights record, the rights organization maintains.
The EU imposed limited sanctions in late 2005, seeking to punish Uzbekistan over its refusal to allow an independent investigation into the conduct of Uzbek security forces during the Andijan events in May of that year. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The sanctions included a prohibition on arms exports to Tashkent that could be used for the repression of internal dissent. Brussels also banned top Uzbek officials responsible for the massacre from traveling to any EU member state. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
More than a year later, the sanctions have had no discernable impact on changing Uzbek government policy. Two HRW representatives suggested a major factor in the sanctions' ineffectiveness has been the EU's half-hearted approach toward enforcement. "Sanctions were never given a chance to work," said Rachel Denber, deputy director of HRW's Europe and Central Asia Division, during a recent Open Forum hosted by the Open Society Institute in New York.
The EU's political will was diluted by competing priorities, Denber indicated. Brussels felt it had to make a gesture to register its disapproval of Tashkent's actions. Yet, at the same time, various EU member states did not want to lose economic and political influence with President Islam Karimov's administration, given that Russia and China were acting aggressively at the time to shore up their respective positions in Uzbekistan. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
EU officials "almost immediately started to walk away" from enforcing the sanctions after they were formally imposed, Denber said. Brussels' stance is one of several reasons Karimov's administration has continued to rely on repression since the Andijan tragedy. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Nothing better illustrates the EU's lax attitude than Germany's actions concerning former interior minister Zokir Almatov, who was one of the main architects of the Uzbek government's response to the Andijan protesters that fateful day in May, 2005. In spite of the ban on top Uzbek government officials' travel to the EU, Almatov was allowed to undergo cancer treatment at a German hospital during the latter half of 2005.
A group of Uzbeks who were tortured in government custody in connection with the Andijan events filed a complaint in Germany in late 2005, seeking to force the German government to investigate Almatov and other top Uzbek officials for crimes against humanity. Germany's federal prosecutor rejected the complaint in December 2005. The same month Almatov returned to Uzbekistan, and was shortly thereafter replaced as interior minister.
In late January this year, the Uzbek plaintiffs filed an appeal in a German court, seeking to overturn the earlier ruling against the opening of an investigation. In a statement issued February 2, HRW asserted that the German government, in neglecting to investigate Almatov, violated its own Code of Crimes against International Law.
"Germany's universal jurisdiction law was adopted to help survivors of serious atrocities who have no hope of getting justice at home," said Holly Cartner, the director of HRW's Europe and Central Asia Division. "By refusing to use the law, Germany's federal prosecutor has exacerbated the environment of impunity that exists for foreign officials accused of crimes against humanity."
The rights climate in Uzbekistan is increasingly bleak, Andrea Berg, who directs HRW's office in Tashkent, said at the OSI Open Forum. She estimated that the government had conducted "20 to 24 closed trials" over the past two years, trials that have not drawn forceful condemnations from the international community. "Uzbekistan has not disclosed the number of trials or the names of dissidents," Berg said. "We have gotten documents, but the documents stop at 10 am on May 13, 2005," the day of the Andijan massacre.
Denber and Berg expressed "hope for positive change," but indicated the Karimov administration would strive to improve its performance only if it became convinced that Washington and Brussels were prepared to adopt a much tougher line against Tashkent, taking steps to not just enforce existing sanctions, but to possibly expand them.
Currently, "the concern in Berlin is over energy policy," Denber said. Thus, the EU's preoccupation with diversifying its sources of oil and gas supplies may prompt Brussels to continue to downplay human rights and democratization issues when dealing with the energy-rich states of Central Asia.
Berg suggested that if a way wasn't found soon to promote a more open environment in Uzbekistan, a social explosion could easily occur. She recounted a saying now making the rounds in Tashkent that encapsulates the danger hanging over Uzbekistan: "Optimists are learning English, pessimists are learning Chinese, and realists are buying Kalashnikovs."