Uzbek officials brushed aside criticism during a two-day session of a UN human rights panel, claiming that the international community is exaggerating some alleged abuses, such as forced sterilization and religious persecution.
The Uzbekistani delegation faced tough questions on a wide array of issues during the UN Human Rights Committee hearings on July 8-9. Forced and child labor in the cotton sector “were discussed at length,” a summary of proceedings posted on the UN committee’s website stated. Other issues raised included torture, gay rights, forced sterilization and freedom of speech.
Allegations of abuses were highlighted in a report published during the run-up to the UN review by the International Partnership for Human Rights, a Brussels-based NGO that asserted “fundamental rights and freedoms of individuals continue to be routinely violated in Uzbekistan.”
Islam Jasimov, a department head at Uzbekistan’s Prosecutor General’s Office, presented the government’s report. He defended Tashkent’s record on child labor, pointing to “progress” that “had been received very positively” by the International Labor Organization (ILO).
Since 2012, Tashkent has prohibited the use of child labor in the cotton harvest, but rights campaigners say this has simply shifted the burden to adults. Roughly 4 million were pressed into service to help gather the harvest last fall, according to the Cotton Campaign, a coalition pushing to end forced labor in the sector.
Forced labor “decimated” public services during the harvest season, as teachers and doctors were forced to work in the cotton fields, according to a report published this year by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights.
The Uzbekistani delegation said mechanization was key to eradicating forced labor, and the government hopes the cotton harvest will be 90 percent mechanized by 2017. Tashkent pledged to invite international stakeholders to a “major conference” this August to present the results of a survey on conditions in the agricultural sector, Jasimov said.
Watchdogs groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, say torture is rampant in Uzbekistan’s jails. At the UN panel, the delegation acknowledged that “instances” occur, but insisted the government was “committed to eradicating torture.”
The delegation flatly denied other allegations of human rights abuses. Reports of forced sterilization were “a fabricated issue” and allegations of persecution of journalists were “unfounded,” as were claims of politically-motivated trials. Uzbekistan also rejected claims of religious persecution, arguing that Tashkent had a “real” threat of terrorism to counter.
Asked about calls to decriminalize consensual sexual relations between men, the delegation responded vaguely that “Uzbekistan shared the position of Muslim countries on the question of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons.”
Jasimov said that Uzbekistan was open to cooperation with the UN over human rights, but campaigners point out that since 2002 Tashkent has denied entry to 13 UN rapporteurs seeking to investigate allegations of torture and other issues.
Campaigners are calling for the establishment of a special UN rapporteur on Uzbekistan, with a remit similar to the existing one for North Korea.
“We believe that Uzbekistan’s record of persistent non-cooperation with UN human rights bodies alongside its otherwise atrocious human rights record merits such a remedy,” Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch told EurasiaNet.org.