A broad coalition of 20 human rights, labor and consumer groups is appealing to the administration of President Barack Obama not to renew military aid and sales to Uzbekistan, widely considered one of the world’s most repressive dictatorships.
In a letter sent Tuesday to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the coalition, which includes Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the AFL-CIO, the biggest U.S. labor confederation, warned against returning to "business as usual" with Tashkent despite its importance as a key hub in a land network that supplies U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
But their advice appeared to be rejected by Obama himself. In a statement released late Wednesday, the White House said that Obama had spoken with Uzbek President Islam Karimov by phone to congratulate him on Uzbekistan’s 20 years of independence and "pledged to continue working to build broad cooperation between our two countries".
"Recent dramatic developments elsewhere in Central Asia and across the Middle East make clear that Uzbekistan’s status as a strategic partner to the United States should not be allowed to eclipse concerns about its appalling human rights record," according to the letter, which was released Wednesday.
In addition to this year’s "Arab Spring" which so far has resulted in the ouster of several leaders who had long cooperated with U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, the letter cited last year’s overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in neighboring Kyrgyzstan as a warning.
"(P)opular revulsion about corruption and repression in Kyrgyzstan led to" the ouster of his government "with which the U.S. military had established a close relationship and where the government had seemed, at the time, just as stable as that of Uzbekistan does today," the letter asserted.
In response, State Department spokesperson Emily Horne said, "Uzbekistan and the United States have a common interest in regional stability," including "agreements to better support our troops in Afghanistan".
"We consider human rights to be an important part of our dialogue with Uzbekistan and are part of every high-level engagement with the government," she added.
The government of President Islam Karimov, who has ruled Uzbekistan with an iron fist since even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, had been largely shunned by Washington since 2005 when hundreds of mainly unarmed demonstrators were shot down by security forces in the city of Andijan.
U.S. protests and demands for an independent international investigation of the massacre incident resulted in its loss of access to Karshi-Khanabad (K2) airbase which had been used by U.S. forces to ferry troops to Afghanistan since shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Even before the massacre, however, Congress had restricted military aid to Uzbekistan in light of the country’s poor human rights record. In 2004, it passed legislation that imposed strict limits on training of Uzbek military officers and an outright ban on funding for arms transfers.
Under the law, those provisions could be eased or lifted only if the secretary of state certified that Tashkent was making "substantial and continuing progress" in improving respect for human rights. No secretary of state, including Clinton, who met with Karimov in Tashkent last December, has done so.
Geopolitics, however, has made Uzbekistan’s strategic location – particularly its status as a central hub in the so-called Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a set of commercial agreements between NATO members and countries of the former Soviet Union to ship supplies overland to Afghanistan – more important than ever to Washington’s efforts to subdue the Taliban insurgency.
The NDN’s importance has grown significantly over the past year as strains between the U.S. and Pakistan – whose territory has long been the main supply route for NATO troops in Afghanistan – have grown ever more acute. Nearly half of all external supplies for NATO troops are now shipped via the NDN, and about 98 percent of those supplies pass through Uzbekistan, according to a recent report by Eurasianet.
Moreover, with Obama committed to withdrawing 30,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan over the next year and NATO planning to withdraw all its forces by 2014, the Pentagon wants to ensure that Uzbekistan will permit the supply line to run through its territory in both directions. Such a two-way transit accord is currently being negotiated with Tashkent, as well as other Central Asian capitals.
According to recently disclosed Wikileaks cables, Karimov has used his cooperation in the NDN as leverage against U.S. pressure on human rights issues.
One cable from February 2010 indicated that Karimov wanted "legitimacy and recognition" from Washington in the form of Clinton’s visit to Tashkent and the "lifting or waiving of the Congressional restrictions" on military aid and sales.
Administration officials have said that the human rights situation has not improved sufficiently to warrant the required certification. As a result, they have been lobbying key members of Congress to enact a "waiver" of the 2004 legislation instead.
Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee went along with the waiver request, virtually assuring its ultimate approval by Congress as a whole.
The pending legislation requires only that the State Department submit a memo to Congress every six months on the human rights situation in Uzbekistan and a second classified memo every year on all U.S. aid to Tashkent, how much it spends in transit fees and other NDN-related costs in Uzbekistan, and any "credible information" that U.S. funds have been "diverted for corrupt purposes".
In its letter to Clinton, the coalition – which also includes the international civil society group CIVICUS, the International Crisis Group, the Open Society Policy Center, and the International Labor Rights Forum – "deplored" both the pending legislation and the administration’s efforts to gain its approval.
The bill, it said, "will allow the provision of taxpayer-funded military and police assistance to the Uzbek government at a time when Uzbek authorities continue to silence civil society activists, independent journalists, and all political opposition; severely curtail freedom of expression and religion; and organize forced child labor on a massive scale."
"There is still time to change course," the letter stated, noting the presence here in Washington this week of Uzbek Foreign Minister Elyor Ganiyev whose visit, the letter went on, offered the opportunity "to make clear, both in private and in public, that U.S. policies towards the Uzbek government will not fundamentally change absent meaningful human rights improvements…"
Some of the groups were represented at a protest outside the hotel where Ganiyev was addressing the American-Uzbek Chamber of Commerce here Wednesday that centered on the government’s annual drafting of some two million schoolchildren to harvest the country’s cotton crop in violation of international child labor conventions. Tashkent has long refused requests by the International Labor Organization (ILO) to monitor working conditions.
"Child labor, we don’t want it! Child labor makes us vomit," chanted the several dozen demonstrators, including several Uzbek survivors of the Andijan massacre who won asylum in the U.S.
"The juxtaposition of pressing ahead with the waivers with the beginning of the cotton harvest – which is one of the worst violations of Uzbek citizens’ human rights – brings home how wrong- headed this decision is," said Jeff Goldstein, a Central Asia expert at Open Society.
In its statement, the White House said Obama and Karimov "discussed their shared desire to develop a multi-dimensional relationship between the United States and Uzbekistan, including by strengthening the contacts between American and Uzbek civil societies and private sector."
Tashkent, however, has forced the closure of a number of offices of independent U.S. organizations in Uzbekistan over the years, including Freedom House, the American Bar Association, Open Society, and, earlier this year, Human Rights Watch.
(Inter Press Service)