Comment: A Voice in the Wilderness

By Umida Niazova in Germany

Comment: A Voice in the Wilderness

By Umida Niazova in Germany

After the United Nations Human Rights Committee looked at the human rights situation in Uzbekistan, the international rights watchdog Human Rights Watch described its findings as “damning”.

In a resolution passed last month, the UN committee expressed its concern at the continued use of torture in Uzbekistan, the lack of freedom of speech, movement and confession, the persecution of human rights activists, and the persistent use of forced child labour.

The committee also expressed regret that no comprehensive or investigation had been launched into the violence in Andijan in May 2005.

Uzbekistan’s government has never seen human rights as an important issue, nor has it taken seriously its commitments to the UN and other international conventions, despite proclaiming proudly that since gaining independence in 1991, it has signed over 60 international documents relating to human rights. In 1995, Uzbekistan acceded to the six fundamental UN human rights conventions.

The effects of signing these various covenants is not, however, noticeable in practice.

The Convention Against Torture, for example, meant absolutely nothing to the group of policemen who raped Raihon Soatova in May 2009.  The case of Raikhon Soatova who was raped by a group of drunk policemen last May. It was only after tremendous efforts by human rights activists and a request from Manfred Nowak, UN special rapporteur on torture, that the Uzbek prosecutor’s office opened a criminal investigation into the rape.   

Eight of the UN’s thematic special rapporteurs are still awaiting invitations to visiting to Uzbekistan. The special rapporteur on human rights has been waiting since 2001, the rapporteur on freedom of confession since 2004, the rapporteur on extrajudicial and arbitrary executions since 2005, the rapporteur on torture since 2006, the rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery and violence against women since 2007, and the rapporteurs on illegal arrest and detention on the independence of judges and lawyers since 2008.

It seems unlikely they will get to visit Uzbekistan any time soon.

In 2002, the Uzbek authorities did allow a visit by Theo van Boven, the then UN special rapporteur on torture. Eight years on, his report on the systematic use of torture is still relevant. The UN committee has repeatedly called on the Uzbek leadership to publicly condemn torture, but even this simple gesture - saying out loud that torture is evil – has not happened.

The government fears independent investigations and independent non-government organisations, it persecutes human rights activists, and it imprisons independent Muslims who do not want to see President Islam Karimov’s portraits in mosques.

Since the authorities do not recognise there is a problem, it is very unlikely they can resolve it by themselves.  

In such an environment, calls by the UN Human Rights Committee for an improvement in the situation sound like a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Statements by the government delegation that attended the committee hearings made it clear that Uzbekistan is not planning to change its view.

The 2005 bloodshed in Andijan is a highly sensitive issue for the regime, and it would be naïve to think the authorities are prepared to conduct an independent investigation five years on. They have spent the intervening period rewriting history to create their own version of events, which they defend staunchly.

On the one side, there is the UN Human Rights Committee calling on Uzbekistan to pay compensation to the victims of the Andijan violence. On the other, there is a government which, with the recent arrest of Andijan refugee Dilorom Abdiqodirova after she returned to the country, demonstrated that such individuals can expect retribution, not compensation.

One positive point is that the Human Rights Committee hearing and final resolution showed that international observers were very well-informed about the reality of human rights in Uzbekistan. Yet unfortunately, the UN has no mechanisms for exerting pressure on dictators, other than public condemnation.

If the situation is to change, therefore, the United States and European Union must exert constant pressure on Uzbekistan.

We human rights activists must persist with our task of speaking out about human rights violations, consistently and vocally. We must insist that Uzbekistan’s international partners always raise human rights when talking with Tashkent. We must seek to ensure that any humanitarian or technical assistance provided to Uzbekistan contributes to substantive change. One of the criteria that might be set is the release of 14 human rights activists from Uzbek jails.

Given that Uzbekistan is one of the ten most repressive countries in the world, along with pariah states like Burma and North Korea, democratic states need to calibrate their approach to the regime accordingly.

Umida Niazova is head of the Uzbek German Forum for Human Rights, and is based in Berlin.

(This article was produced as part of IWPR’s News Briefing CentralAsia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.)

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