Diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks appear to confirm that the US Embassy in Uzbekistan disregards democratic principles in its dealings with the Uzbek government.
The most recent batch of cables released by Wikileaks, ranging from 1997 to 2010, reveals how the US Department of State accommodated Uzbekistan’s desire for “international praise” amid ongoing human rights abuses in the Central Asian state, including forced child labor in the cotton industry.
In one particularly noteworthy cable, dated May 14, 2008, US diplomats sought to deter the European Union from retaining sanctions on Uzbekistan that were imposed after hundreds of unarmed protestors were shot dead in Andijan in May 2005. In the cable, sent six months before the EU ended up ditching the sanctions, the US Embassy warned that the penalties were counterproductive. American diplomats also lambasted Human Rights Watch (HRW), an organization that campaigned strenuously for tough measures against Tashkent, saying that the international organization was taking an “unrealistic” approach toward Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s administration.
“The main message we need to get across to international human rights organizations like HRW is that having the EU or the United States implement sanctions against the Uzbek government at this point would go a long way to worsen, not improve, the human rights situation in Uzbekistan. If sanctions are imposed on the government, the government will respond by breaking off or severely restricting contact with the West again, and the release of political prisoners and other recent improvements will come to a screeching halt,” the cable stated.
The cable went on to assert that “militant” Uzbeks living in exile were calling for continued sanctions because they did not have to live with “the price,” while Uzbek activists in favor of sanctions still resident in Uzbekistan were dismissed as possibly having a “partisan political agenda.”
Rights groups have long ranked Uzbekistan as among the most repressive states in the world. In dealing with authoritarian administrations, activists have long maintained that diplomatic engagement often abets, rather than deters rights abuses: leaderships that depend on the use of force to remain in power are more likely to change their behavior when their diplomatic partners use sticks, as well as carrots.
The embassy also called for action to counter the assertion made by rights activists that expanding security cooperation with repressive regimes took a high toll on democratization. “We should not let international human rights groups like HRW posit the notion that there is a trade-off between security cooperation and human rights.”
Turning to the Andijan events, the US diplomats conceded the Uzbek government’s version of events had “some merit.” Meanwhile, a comprehensive investigation by HRW found that the Andijan events had economic antecedents: the government’s arbitrary arrests of local merchants precipitated an armed response by the traders’ friends and relatives.
“There were armed extremists, they did seize a prison and government buildings, they did take hostages, and they did kill government troops,” a US diplomatic cable said. “What the [Government of Uzbekistan’s] version leaves out is the fact that security forces at the very least panicked and over-reacted badly, killing hundreds of people.”
The embassy then proposed it might be better to offer Uzbek troops training “so they have more options than to shoot or run away should an Andijan-like scenario emerge again.”
Other cables show that visiting US dignitaries were asked to highlight and commend Uzbek authorities’ performance in the human rights sphere, despite a clear disconnect between “progress” and pledges.
The cables suggest that the embassy was at times at a loss on how to report on some Uzbek rights abuses, in particular forced child labor in the cotton industry.
The embassy made numerous contradictory statements about the use of forced child labor. Some cables reported that the use of children in the fields is extensive and that they are exposed to harmful chemicals, while other cables cited “progress” on symbolic actions such as ratifying International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions against child labor in 2008. To date, Uzbekistan has refused permission for an ILO representative to monitor cotton harvesting.
“Engagement is much more likely to produce results than sanctions and isolation,” a March 9, 2009, cable titled “Uzbekistan: Education Ministry on Anti-Child Labor Efforts; Education Reform,” stated.
However, a cable dated February 2, 2010, in response to a US Department of Labor request for information on forced child labor and forced labor in Uzbekistan conceded; “The [Uzbek] government made limited progress in regard to combating exploitive child labor during the reporting period. There was no known increase in inspections/investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of people involved in child labor; and funding levels for child labor elimination policies have never been released.”
A cable three months earlier, written apparently to deter US agencies from suspending or revoking benefits granted to Uzbekistan under the General System of Preferences (GSP), a program designed to promote global economic growth by providing preferential duty-free entry for certain products, argued that forced child labor should not “define our interests.”
The December 9, 2009, cable identified child labor in the cotton industry as an area where “Uzbekistan falls far short of US and international standards.”
If the Uzbek authorities had granted the ILO permission to monitor the harvest it “would only have reconfirmed what everyone, including the [Government of Uzbekistan], already knows: children participate in the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan,” it added.
Also, the embassy feared that if Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov returned from a visit to Washington, DC, “with nothing more than the news that the United States is sanctioning Uzbekistan for child labor by lifting GSP, the reaction on the part of President Karimov and the [government] is likely to be very negative.”
“Unfortunately, this is a case where doing the right thing in terms of process or principle … would result in a set-back for US policy and security interests in Uzbekistan,” the cable concluded.
Deirdre Tynan is Bishkek-based journalist specializing in Central Asian affairs.