Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is visiting Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan this week – three countries plagued by serious human rights abuses. Uzbekistan has one of the world’s worst human rights records; Tajikistan is in the midst of its most severe crackdown on the political opposition since the end of the country’s bloody civil war in 1997; and abuses persist in Kyrgyzstan, the region’s only parliamentary democracy.
Steinmeier is traveling as chairperson of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), founded on the principle of maintaining regional security by protecting human rights and the rule of law. Germany has emphasized this principle during its chairmanship, and his trip offers an opportunity to put it into practice.
The abuses in these countries include torture, imprisoning activists, harassing nongovernmental groups, and heavy restrictions on free speech and protest. Steinmeier should press for an end to those abuses when he meets the presidents and other politicians and speak publicly about specific abuses, including the jailing of activists in all three countries. He can also use meetings with nongovernmental groups to seek guidance on their concerns.
As the first European Union member state with an embassy in all of the five Central Asian countries, Germany has a long history of engagement and strong standing in the region. It should use this leverage to make clear it expects meaningful reforms if bilateral relations are to flourish.
In many instances, those risks arise from the governments’ own actions.
In Uzbekistan, decades of President Islam Karimov’s authoritarian rule have created fragile – even explosive – conditions. Thousands of people, including journalists, human rights defenders, and religious believers, are imprisoned on politically motivated charges.
In Tajikistan, the banning of the main opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), and persecution of its members and others has led to fears of political instability and the growth of Islamic extremism. In Kyrgyzstan, the government has not addressed the lack of accountability for the arbitrary arrests, ill-treatment, and torture in the aftermath of ethnic violence in June 2010.
While all three countries face genuine security challenges, these need to be tackled in ways that respect human rights. Otherwise, there are dangers of making security conditions worse, not better.
Hugh Williamson is the Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.