Uzbekistan

 

  • ‘Most of what you hear is noise and government propaganda’

     

    As part of our 2018 report on the theme ofreimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks tojournalist Aleksey Volosevich about recent political changes in Uzbekistan and what they might mean for civil society.

    1.From outside Uzbekistan, it appears that socio-political reforms are underway, at least to some extent. How real have reforms been, and what are the limitations?

    There is no real socio-political reform; most of what you hear about this is noise and government propaganda. There are very few changes. I would characterise what is happening rather as the elimination of the worst excesses and restrictions committed under the late President Islam Karimov. This is mainly happening in the economic sphere and in establishing relations with neighbouring countries, as under Karimov relations were very bad. For example, current President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who was Prime Minister under Karimov for 13 years, was able to establish relations with neighbouring Tajikistan and both countries abolished the visa regime and set up transport and air services, for the first time in around 20 years.

    But there have been almost no institutional changes. All reforms are half-hearted and almost none are fully implemented. President Mirziyoyev does not bring many reforms to an end. But all the state-controlled media makes noise about the so-called great reforms, and this noise, unfortunately, is picked up by foreign media that do not understand what is happening here.

    There are some achievements. Recently, a tax reform was carried out, which most economists evaluated as a positive change. The forced mobilisation of the population during the annual cotton harvest campaign has been partially abolished. The ban on photography has been lifted, and it is now possible to take photographs on the metro, for example, when earlier this would have led to the photographer being immediately detained and dragged to the police. Things have become less paranoid than under Karimov, which was a reflection of his psychopathic personality. The atmosphere in the country has improved; it has become a little easier to breathe.

    In addition, the government has begun to change the way its reacts to publications in the press. Now there is some kind of response to 10 to 20 per cent of critical messages. The country's leadership shows signs that it understands criticisms, and there are examples of it abolishing unpopular decisions, dismissing officials and governors who are at fault, and attempting somehow to improve the situation. Under Karimov nothing like this happened.

    Almost all political prisoners, around 20 people, have been released. But none of them have been rehabilitated, and none of their investigators, who tortured them and fabricated criminal cases, have been punished. So this positive move has not been brought to its logical conclusion.

    And still the law does not ensure the rights of private property. A house, a shop, an enterprise of any kind can be demolished immediately, in order to build something else, while the compensation given is scanty or non-existent. Recently, along the so-called ‘presidential highway’, several dozen cottages and country houses, some built at great cost, were demolished. And no one could do anything. Investors see this and are not in a hurry to invest their money in Uzbekistan.

    Also take, for example, the loud noise that was made about the introduction of currency exchange. Under Karimov this was not officially allowed, but the entire population was quietly changing money with street currency traders. At any moment it was possible to buy and sell any currency from traders, while banks did not buy currency. Under Mirziyoyev, the police dispersed all street currency traders, and banks were ordered to buy dollars. But banks do not sell dollars, and there are no currency exchange points. So where do we buy dollars now? No one knows. So the reform made things worse than before. But the press loyal to the authorities screams that currency reform has taken place in Uzbekistan, and now the authorities are moving away from discussing the topic. There are many such reforms that have begun but have not been brought to a logical conclusion. They touch upon the most basic moments of life in Uzbekistan.

    It should be emphasised that Karimov created a tough authoritarian system for our new authorities, which they consider to be convenient for themselves. All changes and reforms are going to be carried out strictly within its framework, without affecting its foundations. There is no question of complete freedom of speech, fair elections and an independent judiciary. At the same time, representatives of the new government have redistributed beneficial ownership in their favour, taking control, for example, over the vast majority of imports entering the country, wholesale trade and, of course, the sphere of exports and construction.

    There is still no question of protecting basic civil liberties. There is no one to protect them. Often, even such thoughts do not arise. The population is apathetic, uneducated and cowardly. There is practically no one to rely on. For the people to mature, you need at least a few decades. And then it will be possible to speak only about the next generations.

    2. What have been the driving forces and motivations behind the limited changes you have seen so far?

    What changes there have been have come about partly as a result of internet publications, social networks and people’s exposure to examples of life in developed countries. When everyone reads, for example, that in some underdeveloped countries the average salary has become higher than in Uzbekistan, people begin to resent it. And representatives of government and their relatives are also constantly on the internet and discuss all this. They feel the growth of dissatisfaction in some directions, and, if this does not contradict their own careers and selfish interests, try to somehow reduce discontent and solve some problems. In this respect, Mirziyoyev is much better than Karimov, who did not use the internet and, accordingly, did not care.

    The influence of the media and social networks is great, and therefore they are an important catalyst for change. But it must be understood that at the same time, Islamist fanatics are creating their own information field, and its strength and influence also grows. There is a tension because Uzbekistan is religiously and culturally part of the Islamic world, but is also secular, and has many supporters of European values and the European way of development.

    3. How have changes affected civil society so far?

    It has become easier to work with the media, which has become bolder and begun to issue a whole stream of news. Over the last two years this is a major move. But still they dare not criticise the president, prime minister and their entourage. If they do, they may be deregistered or closed, or staff may be fired.

    There are only two independent sites that provide critical commentary on Uzbekistan: my site, AsiaTerra.info, and Uzmetronom.com, which belongs to another journalist. Otherwise, there is little analysis of the type that would be considered normal elsewhere.

    Fuller freedom is appearing in social networks. Just two years ago the authors of anti-government statements, or simply those that were critical, would have been summoned to the police and threatened with a criminal case. And now many people write what they want, and nobody pursues them. But this is not because the laws have changed. The laws are still the same. It's just that the new president has allowed people to express their opinions more freely. However, if he leaves his post and another person takes it, everything can immediately become as it was, because no irreversible changes have occurred. But while the trend is positive, gradually people can get used to greater freedom of expression, and this is important in itself.

    But there is almost no independent civil society in Uzbekistan. There are only a few hundred people who are active on Facebook, and about a third of them live abroad. Any attempt to hold a protest on an important occasion will attract at best a handful of people. Compare this to when the authorities in the autumn of 2017 promised to distribute free plov - Uzbekistan’s national dish - in the centre of the capital, Tashkent: tens of thousands of people gathered with bowls.

    There are also many religious fanatics who, due to the fact that Karimov pursued them for many years, prefer to sit quietly and not show themselves. But when a prominent Islamic figure died a couple of years ago, about 80,000 people turned out for his funeral. The authorities did not expect such an influx and were very frightened, although everything ended peacefully.

    If voters were given the opportunity to vote in absolutely honest elections, there is a danger that a populist using religious slogans would come to power. Uzbekistan, over the long term, needs an enlightened and adequate leader who can lead the country along the path of progress, even if a large part of the population does not want it.

    4. What are the key challenges for civil society in the current context, and how might they be addressed?

    For those few hundred socially active people, perhaps the most basic difficulty at the moment is that the authorities do not notice them and do not seek to make any contact. Officials are afraid of being accused of disloyalty, so they are afraid to talk with civil society activists, and even mention their names. There is no interaction with the authorities, through the fault of the officials.

    The world outlook of people needs to change. In Soviet times, despite all the excesses, there was some general progress. Women gained rights. The power of the Islamic clergy was limited. All children were sent to schools, taught to read and write, and given some knowledge about the world. Particularly rapid development took place during the last decades of the Soviet Union. And with the collapse of the Soviet Union there was powerful pullback. Perhaps the ubiquitous spread of the internet will help spread knowledge and information, and enlightenment in general. But, given the current speed of these changes, I think it would take 200 years. Most of the population does not read anything and does not want to read, except for simple correspondence in social networks.

    5. What can the international community and international civil society do to support favourable conditions for civil society in Uzbekistan?

    There are three key things. The first is to give financial support to independent media and active human rights groups. The second is to prosecute thoroughly the criminal representatives of the regime who are in the West, bring criminal cases against them, demand that their bank accounts be blocked and their property confiscated - in general, not to leave them alone for a minute. And third, in no way to demonstrate their loyalty to Uzbek religious extremists entrenched in the West. These are the main enemies of democracy and human rights.

    Support of the media and active human rights groups is important. If some outside agencies have the opportunity to give financial support to independent media in Uzbekistan and similar countries, it would be desirable to do so. A free media in attitudes and expose torture, the exploitation of people and corruption. Both those and others, as a rule, stand for democracy and liberal values. But getting this support because of bureaucratic obstacles, including from donors, is very difficult.

    Civic space in Uzbekistan is rated as ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Aleksey via hiswebsite or hisFacebook page.

     

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  • CIVICUS expresses concern over detention of Uzbekistan activist

     

    13 May 2009 – CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation has expressed concern over the detention of well-known civil society activists in Tashkent, Uzbekistan for commemorating the anniversary of the 2005 “Andijan Massacre”.

    Civil society activists Oleg Sarapulov and Tatyana Dolblatova from the Committee for the Freedom of the Prisoners of Conscience in Uzbekistan, and Elena Urlaeva, Salomatoy Boymatova, and Anatoly Volkov and Victoria Banjenova from the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan were detained for most of today at the Tashkent Police Department for peacefully paying tribute to the memory of those killed in Andijan on 12-13 May 2005.

    Further, Bahadir Namazov from the Committee for the Freedom of the Prisoners of Conscience in Uzbekistan remains under house arrest to prevent them from attending the peaceful memorial services at Tashkent’s Monument to Courage.

    “Commemorating the deaths of fellow citizens is not a crime. Their detention even further tarnishes Uzbekistan’s democratic credentials as a member of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE),” said Ingrid Srinath, Secretary General of CIVICUS.

    According to reports, surveillance and pressure on independent human rights defenders began yesterday, on the 12th of May, and has continued throughout today. All the mentioned human rights activists were followed by several law enforcement agents.

    On 13 May 2005, gunmen attacked government buildings and broke into the Andijan city prison, taking hostages. In reaction, thousands of demonstrators later gathered, airing grievances about the government. While official estimates state that 173 people were killed, it was widely reported that over 500 lost their lives. Although, no official investigation has been made into these events, it is clear officers from the Ministry of the Interior and National Security Service used violent and disproportionate force against protesting citizens, resulting in these deaths. The government of Uzbekistan has not held any of the forces accountable for the violence.

    CIVICUS believes these civil society activists were arbitrary detained, in breach of national constitutional guarantees and Uzbekistan’s commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights assuring the freedom to assemble peacefully.

     

  • Country recommendations on civic space for the UN´s Universal Periodic Review

    CIVICUS and its partners have submitted joint and stand-alone UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) submissions on 9 countries in advance of the 30th UPR session (May 2018). The submissions examine the state of civil society in each country, including the promotion and protection of the rights to freedom of association, assembly and expression and the environment for human rights defenders. We further provide an assessment of the States’ domestic implementation of civic space recommendations received during the 2nd UPR cycle over 4 years ago and provide a number of targeted follow-up recommendations. Countries examined include: Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Colombia, Cuba, Djibouti, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan:

    Bangladesh (Individual/Joint): In this UPR, CIVICUS draws attention to a range of legislative restrictions which have been strengthened and imposed to curtail the operation of independent civic groups in Bangladesh. Of particular concern, are new restrictions on groups seeking funds from abroad, as well the repeated use of the penal code to arrest HRDs and place blanket bans on meetings and assemblies. We further examine the spate of extrajudicial killings against secular bloggers and LGBTI activists which is illustrative of Bangladesh’s downward spiral with respect to civic freedoms and systemic failure to protect civil society.

    Burkina Faso (EN/FR): CIVICUS, the Burkinabé Coalition of Human Rights Defenders and the West African Human Right Defenders Network examine unwarranted limitations on freedom of expression and assembly. Despite several positive developments since the popular uprising of 2014, such as the decriminalisation of defamation and the adoption of a law on the protection of human right defenders, restrictions on the freedom of expression including suspensions of media outlets by the national media regulator and attacks and threats against journalists continue.

    Cameroon: CIVICUS, Réseau des Défenseurs Droits Humains en Afrique Centrale (REDHAC) and the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa (CHRDA) highlight Cameroon’s fulfilment of the right to association, assembly and expression and unwarranted persecution of human rights defenders since its previous UPR examination.  We assess the ongoing judicial persecution and detention of human rights defenders on trumped up charges, the use of anti-terrorism legislation to target journalists and excessive use of force against peaceful protesters.  

    Colombia(EN/SP): CIVICUS highlights the hostile environment for human rights defenders, social leaders and unions workers who are routinely subject to physical attacks, targeted assassinations, harassment and intimidation by state and non-state actors. CIVICUS examines the increased number of attacks against journalists as well as the government’s lack of effective implementation of protection mechanisms to safeguard the work of journalists and human rights defenders.

    Cuba (EN/SP): CIVICUS and the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) highlight the constitutional, legal and de facto obstacles to the exercise of the basic freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. The submission discusses the situation of CSOs, HRDs, journalists and bloggers, who face harassment, criminalisation, arbitrary arrests, searches of their homes and offices and reprisals for interacting with UN and OAS human rights institutions. The submission further examines the multiple ways in which dissent is stifled both in the streets and in the media, offline and online. 

    Djibouti (EN/FR): CIVICUS, Defend Defenders and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) submission describes how the government of Djibouti has patently ignored the 14 recommendations made during the second UPR cycle related to the protection of the rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression. Instead, in the intervening period, authorities in Djibouti have continued their campaign against dissent, regularly detaining human rights defenders, journalists and trade union activists because of their criticism of the government or human rights activists.  

    Russia: CIVICUS and Citizens’ Watch address concerns regarding the adoption and application of several draconian laws that have resulted in the expulsion and closure of numerous CSOs and restrictions on the activities of countless others. The submission also lays out the increasing criminalisation and persecution of dissenting views by means of growing restrictions, in both law and practice, on the exercise of the fundamental freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly. 

    Turkmenistan: CIVICUS highlights restrictions to freedom of association in Turkmenistan including recent amendments to the 2014 Law on Public Associations which further limit CSOs’ ability to register, operate independently and receive funding from international sources. Additionally, we assess the use of the arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment of human rights defenders as well as unwarranted limitations to online and offline freedom of expression.

    Uzbekistan: CIVICUS, The Association for Human Rights in Central Asia and the International Partnership for Human Rights assess the conditions of freedom of association, assembly and expression in Uzbekistan. We highlight the lack of progress made in implementing recommendations received during the 2nd UPR cycle. It particular, we note that although there have been some notable improvements to the environment for civic space, the situation for human rights activists and journalists remains deeply constrained.

     

  • Open letter to the President of Uzbekistan regarding Maxim Popov's continued incaceration

    Click here to download

     

  • Open Letter to Uzbek President Karimov

    Click here to download copy of letter.

     

  • Sex Education Deemed Illegal in Uzbekistan

    Johannesburg. 16 March 2010.Uzbek HIV activist, Maxim Popov, has been sentenced to seven years in prison apparently as punishment for his work to raise public awareness on prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and the promotion of healthy lifestyles. Although the sentence was given in September 2009, this news became public only in late February 2010.

    According to local sources, Maxim Popov was charged with embezzlement of funds, involving minors in anti-social behavior, molesting individuals, involving individuals with drugs, and tax evasion. Two of his colleagues were also charged with embezzlement, tax evasion and violations of foreign currency regulations and were given one-year suspended sentences. Mr Popov is the leader of NGO Izis, which focuses on work with drug addicts, sex workers and on HIV prevention. He is also the author of the book "HIV and AIDS Today", which was published with the support of UNICEF and Population Services International. This book, explaining STD prevention, was deemed "illegal" by the criminal court of Tashkent, based on the findings of a commission of experts that it is disrespectful of the national culture and the Uzbek people.

     

  • Uzbekistan at UN Human Rights Council: Adoption of Universal Periodic Review Report

    The Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, International Partnership for Human Rights and CIVICUS welcome the government of Uzbekistan’s engagement with the UPR process, including its decision to accept over 200 recommendations on a range of human rights issue. 

    While we note the release from detention of 28 activists, political opponents and journalists in the last two yars, as well as the authorities’ steps to allow for greater  independent dissent, we regret that freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association remain willfully suppressed by the State limited. Of the 28 people released in the last two years, many remain under surveillance. According to human rights monitors, at least five people remain behind bars for exercising their right to freedom of expression. We are concerned that since 25 August 2018 at least twelve bloggers have also been detained in connection with posts they made on social media. 

    We regret that national legal mechanisms remain partial and subject to political interference. Courts continue to place arbitrary restrictions on protests, including  rulings that unwarrantedly limit people’s support for demonstrations off and online under the guise of    incitement to public disorder. During detention, torture is frequently used and procedural rights for detainees are often disregarded. Those who submit written complaints to the President or speak to the press are sometimes added to the “black list” of people deemed “undesirable” and are denied freedom of movement.

    We regret that tight state controls on CSO  registration, funding and activities, coupled with ongoing restrictions on freedom of expression, prevent independent media outlets and human rights CSOs s from operating unencumbered .  

    Although some activists have been allowed to travel abroad in recent months, restrictions on international travel remain in place for other human rights defenders. 

    Mr President, we call on Uzbekistan to implement recommendations it accepted on promoting the right to freedom of association and participation in public affairs to lift prohibitive registration requirements of CSOs, to ensure CSOs and journalists can fully exercise their freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and to create a safe environment for human rights defenders, including for women human rights defenders.
     

     

  • UZBEKISTAN: ‘Advocacy for labour and human rights is a marathon, not a sprint’

    Allison GillCIVICUS speaks about the recent civil society victory in eliminating state-imposed forced labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry with Allison Gill, a human rights lawyer and Forced Labour Director at the Global Labour Justice - International Labour Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF).

    GLJ-ILRF is a civil society organisation (CSO) that provides strategic capacity to cross-sectoral work on global value chains and labour migration corridors. It coordinates the Cotton Campaign, which since 2007 has fought against state-imposed forced and child labour in the cotton industries of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

    What prompted the Cotton Campaign to lift the boycott on Uzbek cotton?

    We have advocated for an end to child and forced labour in the Uzbek cotton sector for almost 15 years, and the 2021 harvest was the first in which we did not observe state-imposed forced labour since our frontline partner, the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, started conducting annual independent monitoring 11 years ago. This crucial development followed several years of progress in the implementation of legal and policy changes that our campaign advocated for, including reforming the forced labour system, imposing liability for the use of forced labour and raising payments to cotton pickers to attract voluntary labour, and raising awareness among the population of the forced labour ban.

    Despite this landmark achievement, significant labour risks continue to exist. We continue to warn against the use of coercion and threat of penalty in labour recruitment as well as about the interference of local officials in recruitment and cotton production. We are also worried about restrictions on the freedoms of association and expression, and specifically about the ability of independent groups to register and operate. In addition, farmers in the cotton sector continue to be subjected to exploitative conditions.

    The situation is quite different in Turkmenistan, the other country covered by our campaign, where the government has systematically used forced labour during the most recent harvest season, in autumn 2021. It maintains total control over the cotton sector, and forcibly mobilises civil servants, including teachers, medical workers and others, to pick cotton or make them pay for a replacement picker. It forces farmers to meet official production quotas under threat of penalties, including loss of their land. Worse yet, it exerts control over all aspects of civil society work and has taken harsh action against those who report abuses in the sector.

    What advocacy tactics has your campaign used, and what lessons have you learned?

    Over the past 15 years, we have used a wide range of advocacy tools, including direct actions, policy engagement, accountability tools and support for civil society and labour rights monitors.

    A centrepiece of our work and strategy is independent monitoring through our partner, the Uzbek Forum, which is based in Berlin but operates a network of independent monitors on the ground in Uzbekistan. Our advocacy has therefore been shaped by direct information collected from the ground through in-depth interviews with cotton pickers, people in forced labour, local officials and other stakeholders.

    Another key advocacy tool is the Uzbek Cotton Pledge, a commitment by more than 330 brands and retailers not to use Uzbek cotton in their supply chains until forced labour has been eliminated. We formalised the Pledge after companies began to adopt sourcing policies to exclude Uzbek cotton and Uzbek activists called for an international boycott in 2009.

    We launched complaints against the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation’s investments in the Uzbek cotton sector. We advocated with the US government, the European Union and its member states, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations, using specific policy mechanisms to bring pressure on the government of Uzbekistan to end forced labour. We also have advocated with the government directly, including by issuing a Roadmap of Reforms at the government’s request.

    We have remained convinced of the importance of centring our campaigning around the demands of affected workers and civil society and the need to be guided by independent monitoring and reporting. And we have learned that advocacy for labour and human rights is a marathon, not a sprint. There is power in collective action and commitment by broad coalitions united with a purpose, which is what makes it possible to make progress even on seemingly intractable problems.

    What are the conditions for independent civil society monitoring in Uzbekistan?

    There are activists inside Uzbekistan who have tried to form their own organisations, but they have faced many obstacles. The ILO, which has included civil society monitors for several years, has concluded its monitoring of the cotton harvest with the intention of transitioning monitoring to local civil society organisations (CSOs).

    Unfortunately, local CSOs are unable to register to operate. One of the monitors that had previously partnered with the ILO and intended to carry on monitoring work was denied registration nine times and was ultimately forced to register as an enterprise instead of a CSO.

    Civic space in Uzbekistan remains tightly restricted. The authorities continue to impose excessive and burdensome registration requirements on independent CSOs, in violation of their freedom of association. They have repeatedly and arbitrarily denied registration to nearly all independent human rights CSOs, including those that monitor forced labour.

    Although Uzbekistan ratified the 1948 ILO Convention 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise in 2016, it has made little progress on meaningful implementation. Farmers, farmworkers and cotton pickers are vulnerable to abuse by cotton companies (known as ‘clusters’) as well as local officials. They are not represented by independent labour unions or other representative organisations.

    In March 2021, cotton workers held the first democratic union election in Uzbekistan, organising hundreds of cotton workers at Indorama, an international company growing and spinning cotton. The union faced harassment and intimidation around the time of its formation and, experiencing significant barriers against registration, ultimately took the decision to affiliate with the government-aligned trade union federation, which is far from independent.

    All these impediments leave Uzbekistan with one million hectares of land under cotton production and no independent local CSOs with the skills, capacity and legal status to conduct credible independent monitoring, which is ultimately necessary to provide assurances to international buyers in line with their obligations.

    How can the international community best support labour activism in Uzbekistan?

    Companies interested in sourcing cotton products from Uzbekistan must do so responsibly, in a way that meets their obligations and ensures that labour rights are respected at every tier of the supply chain. The Cotton Campaign has developed a Framework for Responsible Sourcing that provides for co-governance, independent monitoring and reporting, access to grievance and remedy, and a space for workers to ensure their interests are represented.

    Uzbekistan must undertake reforms to allow workers and farmers to exercise their right to the freedom of association, particularly to organise and form representative organisations. It must also lift restrictions, both in law and in practice, which prevent civil society groups from operating. International stakeholders, especially governments, international organisations and multilateral development banks, must urge Uzbekistan to follow through with these reforms.

    Civic space in Uzbekistan is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with GLJ-ILRF through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@GLJhub and@cottoncampaign on Twitter.