The World Bank is investing about $500 million dollars in Uzbekistan’s agricultural sector. One of the main crops produced there is cotton, and it is harvested by millions of Uzbek citizens forced into cotton fields by their own government, which oversees one of the world’s largest state-run forced labor systems.
The World Bank has made an unprecedented commitment to end its contract with the government of Uzbekistan if forced labor is found in its project areas, and the International Labour Organization (ILO) agreed to conduct the monitoring. Independent civil society monitors have already documented multiple reports of people mobilized against their will in these areas. To keep these monitors quiet, Uzbekistan’s authoritarian government has launched a string of violent attacks, subjecting civil society monitors to body cavity searches, beatings, detention, surveillance and intimidation.
Please help us tell the World Bank and ILO how important it is to fully report the extent of the Uzbek government’s use of forced labor, and to denounce violent retaliation against civil-society monitors!
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Cotton Campaign Urges ILO and World Bank to Hold Uzbek Government Accountable for Forced Labor and Attacks on Human Rights Defenders
Today, the Cotton Campaign sent the following letter to the President of the World Bank Dr. Jim Yong Kim and the Director-General of the International Labour Organization Mr. Guy Ryder:
Dear Dr. Kim and Mr. Ryder:
In advance of the November round table with the government of Uzbekistan, we write to express our appreciation for the efforts of the ILO and World Bank to achieve the application of international labour standards in Uzbekistan. In light of the Uzbek government’s use of forced labor and attacks on citizens documenting violations this year, we also strongly urge the ILO and World Bank to account for all forced labor perpetrated in assessments of this year’s harvest and to support Uzbek human rights monitors.
The Uzbek government has demonstrated that it is fully deploying its forced-labor system of cotton production this year. After assigning annual production quotas to farmers in the first quarter, officials’ enforcement of production quotas led to the fourth suicide by a farmer in the last two years.[i] From April through August, officials forced thousands of citizens to weed cotton fields.[ii] Since September 8, the government has forced citizens to harvest cotton under threat of penalty nationwide. Under orders from district and regional officials, administrators have mobilized teachers, nurses, doctors and other public sector workers by threatening to fire them. Neighborhood associations (mahallas) have carried out orders from local officials and mobilized retirees and mothers by threatening to cut their pensions and child-care payments. Heads of universities and high-schools have mobilized students under threat of expulsion, including children in the Boz district of Andijan, Pakhtakor district of Jizzak, and Khazarasp district of Khorezm.[iii]
The Uzbek government’s enforcement of production quotas assigned to farmers and recruitment of citizens to work in the cotton fields are the very definition of forced labor,[iv] which, as the ILO Committee of Experts has explained, includes forms of coercion such as physical violence, psychological coercion and the loss of rights or privileges.[v] Furthermore, the government uses forced labor to generate income from cotton sales, in violation of its commitment to not use forced labor for economic development.[vi]
By using forced labor this year, the Uzbek government is violating its contractual commitments to the World Bank to not use forced labor in World Bank project areas[vii] and its agreement to cooperate with the ILO to eradicate forced labor in the cotton sector.[viii] The government is also taking extraordinary measures to cover up its use of coercion. Officials have required teachers and students to sign statements that they participate in the harvest “voluntarily” and instructed teachers to tell foreigners that they pick cotton voluntarily. [ix] The presence of Uzbek government representatives with ILO monitors reduces the likelihood that any citizen will report coercion to the ILO. And police have repeatedly arrested, attacked, and intimidated citizens documenting forced labor,[x] in violation of their rights,[xi] and further undermining the ability of the ILO to obtain all information concerning forced labor.
The Uzbek government’s attempts to mask its use of forced labor must not be accepted. Yet the ILO has reported that it found three categories of recruitment practices through its qualitative survey: voluntary, mobilized and coercion. We are deeply concerned that the ILO established the “mobilized” category to achieve the Uzbek government’s agreement to ILO-led monitoring of forced labor in World Bank project areas and that now the Uzbek government will press hard for the ILO to use the category to minimize the scale of the ILO’s findings of government-orchestrated forced labor during this year’s cotton harvest.
Characterizing forced labor as something else would only serve to prolong the forced-labor system of cotton production in Uzbekistan, which has violated the labor rights of over a million Uzbek citizens each year for the history of the country. Silence in the face of the Uzbek government’s harassment of citizens monitoring and reporting human rights concerns contributes to the destruction of the civil society on which application of labor rights and the socio-economic development depend.
Therefore, we strongly urge the ILO and World Bank to include reports of independent civil-society monitors in assessments of the application of labor conventions in Uzbekistan, to ensure that use of all forms of coercion are reported as forced labor, and to publicly denounce each instance of retaliation against independent civil-society monitors.
We welcome the opportunity to discuss these matters with you.
The Cotton Campaign
Advocates for Public Interest Law
American Apparel & Footwear Association
American Federation of Teachers
Center for Reflection, Education and Action
The Eurasian Transition Group, e.V.
International Labor Rights Forum
No Slavery Australia
Open Society Foundations
Responsible Sourcing Network
Social Justice Board, Uniting Church in Western Australia
Stop the Traffik
Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, Uniting Church in Australia
Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia
United States Council for International Business
United States Fashion Industry Association
Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights
CC: Mr. Kari Tapiola, Special Adviser to the Director-General, ILO
Mr. Saroj Kumar Jha, Regional Director for Central Asia, World Bank
[i] Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF), Chronicle of Forced Labour in Uzbekistan: Issue 1, 2 August 2015, http://uzbekgermanforum.org/chronicle-of-forced-labour-in-uzbekistan-issue-1-2015/.
[ii] UGF, “Uzbek government continued systematic forced labor to weed the cotton fields in 2015,” August 2015, http://uzbekgermanforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Weeding-Report-2015.pdf.
[iii] For evidential presentation of these cases, see: UGF, Chronicle of Forced Labour in Uzbekistan, http://uzbekgermanforum.org/category/cotton-chronicle/chronicle-of-forced-labour-2015/.
[iv] ILO Convention No. 29 concerning Forced or Compulsory Labour (Forced Labour Convention), adopted June 28, 1930, 39 U.N.T.S. 55, entered into force May 1, 1932, Article 2, stating “forced or compulsory labour shall mean all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”
[v] ILO, “Giving Globalization a Human Face,” 2012, ILC.101/III/1B, http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@ed_norm/@relconf/documents/meetingdocument/wcms_174846.pdf, at paragraph 270.
[vi] ILO Convention No. 105 concerning Abolition of Forced Labour, adopted June 25, 1957, entered into force, January 17, 1959, at Article 1b, stating “Each Member of the International Labour Organisation which ratifies this Convention undertakes to suppress and not to make use of any form of forced or compulsory labour…(b) as a method of mobilising and using labour for purposes of economic development.”
[vii] World Bank project areas include the regions of Andijan (Ulugnor district), Bukhara (Alat district), Fergana (Yazyavan district), Karakalpakstan (Beruni, Ellikkala, Turtkul districts), Kashkadarya (Mirishkor district), Namangan, Samarkand, Syrdarya (Bayavut district), Tashkent. See the following documents for the Uzbek government commitments to the World Bank:  Inspection Panel, Report and Recommendations on Request for Inspection, Republic of Uzbekistan: Second Rural Enterprise Support Project and Additional Financing for Second Rural Enterprise Support Project (P126962), Report No. 83254-UZ, (December 9, 2013), at ¶ 25 “all of the following documents have been revised to include provisions that require the beneficiary/beneficiaries to comply with national and international laws and regulations on forced labour, alongside those for child labour: (i) the Rural Enterprise Investment Guidelines; (ii) the Subsidiary Loan Agreement among the Ministry of Finance, the Rural Restructuring Agency (RRA) and the Participating Financial Institutions (PFIs); (iii) the Project Implementation Plan; and (iv) the sub-loan agreement between the PFIs and the beneficiaries.  World Bank, “Financing Agreement (South Karakalpakstan Water Resources Management Improvement Project) between Republic of Uzbekistan and International Development Association,” Credit Number 5490-UZ, 29 October 2014, http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/ECA/2014/11/17/090224b082867c9a/1_0/Rendered/PDF/Official0Docum0Z00Closing0Package00.pdf, at ¶ 4.01 “Article IV: Remedies of Association.”  World Bank, “Loan Agreement (Horticulture Development Project) between Republic of Uzbekistan and International Bank for Reconstruction and Development,” Loan Number 8393-UZ, 8 April 2015, http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/ECA/2015/05/05/090224b082e3e8f6/1_0/Rendered/PDF/Official0Docum0UZ00Closing0Package0.pdf, at Schedule 2 Project Execution, Section I., Implementation Arrangements, A. Institutional Arrangements, 2. (iv), Schedule 2 Project Execution, Section I., Implementation Arrangements, C. Subsidiary Loan Agreements, 4., Schedule 2 Project Execution, Section I., Implementation Arrangements, C. Subsidiary Loan Agreements, 5.e, Schedule 2 Project Execution, Section I., Implementation Arrangements, D. Sub-financing, 3(e), Schedule 2 Project Execution, Section I., Implementation Arrangements, E. Safeguards, 2., Schedule 2 Project Execution, Section I., Implementation Arrangements, E. Safeguards, 4-6.
[viii] Republic of Uzbekistan and International Labour Organization, “Decent Work Country Programme of the Republic of Uzbekistan for 2014-2016,” http://www.ilo.org/public/english/bureau/program/dwcp/download/uzbekistan.pdf.
[ix] UGF, Chronicle of Forced Labour in Uzbekistan: Issue 3, 8 September 2015, http://uzbekgermanforum.org/chronicle-of-forced-labour-in-uzbekistan-issue-3-2015/
[x] See Cotton Campaign,  Uzbek police brutalize human rights monitor Elena Urlaeva, 2 June 2015, http://www.cottoncampaign.org/uzbek-police-brutalize-human-rights-monitor-elena-urlaeva.html, “Uzbek Police Assault Human Rights Defender Elena Urlaeva Again,” 18 August 2015, http://www.cottoncampaign.org/blog/uzbek-police-assault-human-rights-defender-elena-urlaeva-again,  “Uzbekistan: Police arrest human rights defenders for documenting the cotton harvest,” 21 September 2015, http://www.cottoncampaign.org/uzbekistan-police-arrest-uzbek-human-rights-defenders-for-documenting-the-cotton-harvest.html,  “Uzbek government subjects human rights defenders to body-cavity searches,” 1 October 2015, http://www.cottoncampaign.org/uzbek-government-subjects-human-rights-defenders-to-body-cavity-searches.html.
[xi] United Nations Officer of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx, Article 19, ratified by Uzbekistan 28 September 1995.
This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post on 19 October 2015
On October 19, a range of US companies, likely to include General Motors, Coca-Cola, General Electric, and Lockheed Martin, will talk with Uzbekistan's business and government leaders about their investments in the Central Asian country. The American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce (AUCC), which organizes the event every year, will again seek to highlight investment opportunities while avoiding serious questions about human rights abuses in the country's largest export sector, cotton, and the role of multinational companies.
Uzbekistan is the world's fifth-largest cotton exporter, yet sales benefit the government elite on the backs of the Uzbek people. Right now the Uzbek government is forcibly mobilizing students, teachers, doctors, and nurses to pick cotton under threats of suspension from school and losing their jobs. Just this month, the Cotton Campaign documented six deaths associated with this year's harvest. This included a 2-year old boy while his mother picked cotton under threat of losing her job as a kindergarten teacher, a 17-year old boy and 3 others when the cargo truck transporting them to the cotton fields rolled, and Dr. Yusuf Esirgetov, who died of a heart attack after the regional governor jailed him for two days for not fulfilling the cotton harvest quota assigned to the hospital he directs.
This is the world's largest forced-labor system of cotton production, and the Uzbek government has ensnared multinational corporations in it. Last month, the Swedish telecommunications giant Teliasonera announced plans to pull out of Uzbekistan, a year after acknowledging all companies were required to contribute to the cotton harvest as a prerequisite for doing business in the country. Also ensnared, General Motors' Uzbek employees have reported that during each of the past three years their managers sent them to pick cotton under threat of losing their jobs.
The Uzbek government tries to cover up its use of forced labor by harassing, detaining, and imprisoning citizens who report rights abuses in the cotton sector. On September 29, human rights defenders Elena Urlaeva and Malohat Eshankulova weresubjected to body-cavity searches during a 14-hour detention. Muhammad Bekzhanov, who pioneered reporting on the Government's forced labor system, has spent 15 years in prison and is currently the world's longest imprisoned journalist. Salijon Abdurakhmanov, a journalist who reported on government corruption, and Azam Farmonov, a human rights activist who defended farmers' rights, are both sentenced to ten or more years in prison.
Some AUCC members may argue that their engagement can incentivize change, but partnering with human rights violators such as the Uzbek government undermines the earnest efforts of human rights defenders in the country and places the companies' investments at risk. Such partnerships also undermine the principles these companies espouse; Coca Cola, for example, cites its human rights policy as a foundation for managing their work. Some companies have already decided to disassociate themselves from Uzbekistan. The French commodity trader Devcotstopped trading Uzbek cotton, and the global bank BNP Paribas suspended financing its trade. Over 175 retailers and consumer brands, many American, have pledged to avoid using Uzbek cotton until forced labor is ended. Yet AUCC members remain silent.
When the Uzbek and U.S. business leaders gather for the AUCC meeting, they will hear from the United States Department of State, which is currently developing the U.S. national action plan on responsible business conduct. As an OECD member and endorser of the United Nations' Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights, the U.S. government has a duty to help U.S. companies avoid complicity in human rights in their operations around the world. They can start by breaking the silence.
We thus urge U.S. businesses operating in Uzbekistan and the U.S. government to use the AUCC event to speak out against human rights abuses in Uzbekistan and denounce the harassment of human rights defenders in the country. At the very least, the AUCC members can and should publicly commit to not contribute to the forced-labor cotton harvest and establish independent human rights monitoring of the businesses' operations in Uzbekistan.
Co-author: Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign coordinator, International Labor Rights Forum
*The Cotton Campaign is a coalition of business associations, human rights NGOs, investors and trade unions working to end forced labor in the cotton sector.
Follow Judy Gearhart on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ILRF
On the eve of bilateral talks between the State Department and Turkmenistan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Rashid Meredov, seven media and human rights organizations have written to the Foreign Minister to call for the immediate release of journalist Sapermamed Nepeskuliev, detained incommunicado for the past three months.
Dear Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov,
Dear Ambassador Meret Orazov,
We, the undersigned, are writing on the eve of the annual bilateral consultations between the United States and Turkmenistan, to be held on October 15 in Washington, DC, to urge you to release imprisoned reporter Saparmamed Nepeskuliev. We are convinced that his arrest and continued incommunicado detention are directly linked to his work as a reporter.
A freelance journalist for Alternative Turkmenistan News and the Turkmen Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Nepeskuliev went missing in Avaza on July 7, 2015. Only several weeks later, on July 28, did his family discover he was being detained in a prison in Akdash. An official there confirmed that Nepeskuliev was in custody and that he would be charged and tried for unlawfully “possessing pills with narcotic substances.” It is now believed that he has already been sentenced to three years in prison, but due to the clandestine nature of his detention, this cannot be confirmed. The authorities have not informed Nepeskuliev’s family of the status of his detention and his current, specific whereabouts, and have provided no details on his trial and sentence.
Neither his family nor his lawyer have been allowed to visit or have any contact with him. To date they have been unable to obtain a copy of the judgment against him in order to file an appeal. This failure to release information pertaining to his case has been attributed to a travel ban in the region surrounding Turkmenbashi, near the prison where Nepeskuliev’s family believes he has been transferred. Because of the abysmal prison conditions in Turkmenistan and because Nepeskuliev is being held incommunicado, we are very concerned for his health and safety.
There are grounds for concern that the Turkmen authorities are putting tremendous pressure on Nepeskuliev’s family. His mother unsuccessfully attempted to visit her son in prison. She tried a second time at the end of September, and since then we have lost all contact with her. We are now extremely worried for her safety.
Should the Turkmen authorities continue to conceal information about Nepeskuliev’s fate and whereabouts, Nepeskuliev would be the victim of an enforced disappearance, which is a grave crime under international law.
Turkmenistan has the highest number of enforced disappearances in Eurasia and it is ranked 178th out of 180 on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, only above North Korea and Eritrea.
The repressive actions taken against journalists in Turkmenistan have not gone unnoticed by the United States and the international community. For example, the 2014 US Department of State Report on Human Rights Practices said, with regard to Turkmenistan: “[T]he most important human rights problems were arbitrary arrest; torture; and disregard for civil liberties, including restrictions on freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly, and movement;…. Officials in the security services and elsewhere in the government acted with impunity. There were no reported prosecutions of government officials for human rights abuses.”
We hope that these issues will be discussed during the upcoming bilateral talks with the US administration.
Nepeskuliev’s incommunicado detention, imprisonment on trumped up charges, and the authorities’ efforts to keep his family from contacting him and appealing his alleged conviction are serious violations of his rights and of Turkmenistan’s commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. We urge you to immediately release him.
We thank you in advance for your prompt attention to this urgent matter.
Daniel Calingaert, DPhil, Executive Vice President, Freedom House
Ivar Dale, Senior Adviser, Norwegian Helsinki Committee
Rachel Denber, Deputy Director, Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch
Matthew Fischer-Daly, Coordinator, Cotton Campaign
Delphine Halgand, US Director, Reporters Without Borders
Ruslan Myatiev, Editor, Alternative Turkmenistan News
Nenad Pejic, Editor in Chief, RFE/RL