European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has wound up a four-day trip to Central Asia, where she focused on security, energy and trade. The visit disappointed campaigners who hoped for stronger public statements about what they say are serious human rights abuses in the region.
New York-based Human Rights Watch had urged Ashton to “publicly call for the release of wrongfully imprisoned activists” across Central Asia, where “numerous human rights defenders, civil society groups, and opposition activists languish in prison for their peaceful work and activism.”
There was no public mention of prisoners during the visit, which ended in Astana on November 30. After meeting President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Ashton said talks had “not surprisingly, focused on economic and trade issues” and mentioned the “security dialogue.”
“I also want to say that it is important that the country moves forward with economic liberalization and in support of civil society and human rights,” Ashton said. She did not publicly mention the case of opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov, controversially jailed last month on charges of inciting unrest and attempting to overthrow the state.
Neighboring Afghanistan topped the agenda when Ashton visited Uzbekistan the previous day. With President Islam Karimov, she “discussed regional challenges, in particular the developments in Afghanistan.” Like other Central Asian states, Uzbekistan sits astride the Northern Distribution Network supply route into and out of Afghanistan, which is being used to remove military equipment as NATO troops withdraw.
This geostrategic factor prompted HRW to urge Ashton 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.”
HRW Executive Director Ken Roth was disappointed after Ashton’s Tashkent visit. “You'd never know from EU High Rep Ashton's statement after meeting #Uzbekistan Pres Karimov that he's a brutal dictator,” he remarked on Twitter.
Ashton said she had “encouraged [Karimov] to continue with political and economic reforms,” raised “the increasingly important role that civil society needs to play,” and had “a really good meeting” with unspecified representatives of Uzbek civil society.
Speaking before the visit, Nadezhda Atayeva, head of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, said activists had recorded details of 2,000 political prisoners being held in Uzbekistan, and that there may be more. “Since 2009, the EU’s dialogue on human rights with Uzbekistan has been a pure formality,” Atayeva told the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Tashkent denies holding detainees on political charges.
Ashton also urged continued political reforms in Tajikistan. She made no public mention of media freedom, Tajikistan’s blocking of Facebook this week, but she did mention civil society group Amparo, controversially closed in October as among organizations "who do such great work are really important for this country."*
Ahead of her visit, Ashton promised in an interview with Radio Free Europe to make human rights “a core part of the dialogue” but said she preferred “engagement” over “isolation.”
*This posting was corrected on December 2 to reflect the fact that Ashton did mention the issue of Amparo in Tajikistan.