Security and energy topped the agenda on the first day of European Union foreign affairs envoy Catherine Ashton’s visit to Central Asia, disappointing campaigners hoping she would make vocal calls for improvements to what they see as the five states’ dismal human rights records.
Following the EU-Central Asia Ministerial meeting in Kyrgyzstan on November 27, Ashton cited first security (due to the region’s proximity to Afghanistan) then energy and trade as key to “the growing importance of Central Asia.”
“We face shared security challenges. We have great potential to further develop our energy, trade and economic relations,” she said, only then pointing to the EU’s desire to “support the efforts of the countries of Central Asia as you take that journey of political and economic reforms.”
She listed topics of discussion as education; the rule of law; the environment; and energy and water resources (a particular bone of regional contention). “And we talked about democratization and human rights and the development of civil society,” Ashton then added.
Human rights campaigners had been hoping for stronger language from the EU foreign policy chief, who promised ahead of her visit in an interview with Radio Free Europe to make human rights “a core part of the dialogue.”
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) had urged her to ensure that trade, energy, and military priorities “do not eclipse human rights issues in the EU’s dealings in Central Asia” during what it described as “a time of retrenchment on respect for human rights in all five countries.”
“Promises are good, but what is needed is frank talk to her hosts about the need to free detained human rights defenders and to stop harassing activists if they want closer ties,” Lotte Leicht, HRW’s EU advocacy director, said.
Hugh Williamson, director of HRW’s Europe and Central Asia division, urged Ashton to raise the cases of “dozens” of imprisoned activists in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and that of jailed opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov in Kazakhstan.
Last week the European Parliament voted for a non-binding resolution expressing concern over Kozlov’s case and urging progress in political reform in Kazakhstan.
Ashton will visit Tashkent on November 28, then travel to Dushanbe, winding up her visit in Astana on November 30.