This article was originally published on the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights website here.
“When people’s rights to assemble and associate are restricted — whether by an environment of fear or intimidation, or by laws that cut off funding of independent groups — we stand no chance of designing development programs that actually meet the needs of poor communities.”
These words, recently expressed by Mr Maina Kiai, U.N. special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, are of great value for me and my colleagues. We are the Uzbek activists documenting and reporting to the World Bank the labour rights situation in its project areas in Uzbekistan. My colleagues in the country are risking their lives to secure the fundamental human rights of our people. In response to violent state retaliation against them, the World Bank refuses to hold its member and client, the Uzbek government, accountable.
In June 2014, the World Bank approved a loan of $ 410,3 million for the “modernization of agriculture” of Uzbekistan, pledging to prevent the use of forced labour in the Bank’s lending areas.
The Bank’s decision followed a formal complaint from Uzbek citizens and finding by the World Bank Inspection Panel of a link between forced labour and Bank loans to the Uzbek government for agriculture. The Bank committed to (1) suspend loans if child or forced labor is found in World Bank-financed project sites; (2) establish third-party monitoring of labor practices; and (3) establish a grievance redress mechanism. Then it reneged on each commitment. The Bank refused to suspend the loans despite credible documentation that State-led, systematic, and widespread forced labour continued to exist at World Bank-finance project sites. The Bank established a joint ILO-Uzbek government monitoring mission after it learned the government would not accept fully independent third-party monitoring. The Bank did not establish a mechanism that would provide redress to victims of forced labour. Instead, the Bank established a “feedback mechanism” comprised of hotlines that could only be used to inform authorities of crimes, not guarantee victims access to effective remedies, and users of the hotlines were harassed and intimidated in retaliation for reporting.
While embracing the World Bank’s loans and joint monitoring with the ILO, the Uzbek government continued systematic forced labour and severely retaliated against citizens who reported forced labour. Officials arrested, beat and filed charges of “disorderly conduct” against Dmitry Tikhonov, the same day his home office was destroyed by arson, eventually forcing him to flee the country. Officials arrested Uktam Pardaev, confiscated his computer and files used for monitoring, then detained him for two months and subjected him to beatings, and released him on probation and the condition he would no longer report human rights concerns. Officials arrested Ms. Urlaeva five times, subjected her to body-cavity searches twice, and forcibly detained her in a psychological hospital. In each case officials harassed the human rights defenders in retaliation for their reporting of forced labor in the cotton sector.
Neither the World Bank nor the ILO has publicly condemned the violence against the human rights monitors.
Photo: Human Rights Defender Dmitry Tikhonov in his burned out house.
As UN Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai further outlines:
“When governments or private developers try to restrict participation in development projects or attack human rights activists, development banks must react strongly. They need to investigate the issue, publicly condemn the actors involved, use diplomacy, and take other necessary measures to ensure that the banks’ existing and future funding is not contributing to human rights abuses. In some cases, it may be necessary to cut off funding until improvements are made”.
The Uzbek government’s use of forced labour and repression continues this year. Officials have threatened and penalized farmers for not fulfilling production quotas for cotton and wheat, including a case in which officials harvested a farmer’s wheat and seized it while police held the farmer in an armoured vehicle. In April, the head of the Khazarasp district in the Khorezm region Uktam Kurbanov illegally seized a farmer’s land in retaliation for letting two Uzbek human rights activists, Elena Urlaeva and Malokhat Eshonkulova, stay at his place. Officials forced students and education and health-care workers to weed cotton fields. Since a presidential decree establishing a state-order system of production for horticulture, farmers and citizens have reported officials ordering them work to produce horticulture crops, raising concern about an extension of systematic and state-orchestrated coercion.
UGF Questions and the World Bank Answers
In June of this year, Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights sent request for an interview to the World Bank country manager for Uzbekistan Mr. Junghun Cho.
Reading the answers from the World Bank it is difficult to conclude how seriously the Bank takes its commitment to not tolerate the use of forced labour in its lending areas.
Here are the questions that UGF asked the Bank:
The World Bank allocates millions of US Dollars in loans to the agriculture sector of Uzbekistan which, according to our data, is based on the control and coercion of farmers to plant products by the order of the state. The World Bank’s new strategy includes a “modernization of the cotton sector” in Uzbekistan. Could you please explain whether the World Bank has developed clear benchmarks as well as a concrete time frame for the strategy which would induce the Uzbek government to take real steps to reform the country’s agriculture?
Our team of monitors has documented the Uzbek government’s annual use of forced labour to produce cotton for seven years now. 2015 was the first year in which the government had signed agreements with the World Bank determining that the use of forced labour in areas of active World Bank-funded projects in the agriculture and education sectors would be a reason for suspending the Bank’s loans. Our monitors reported evidence of officials forcing farmers to grow cotton and more than one million people to pick cotton throughout the country, including in World Bank project areas. Has the World Bank suspended its loans to the government? If not, why not, and what actions is the Bank intending to take to hold the government accountable for its commitments?
At the same time, the Uzbek government denies that it is forcing people to weed and pick cotton. Will the World Bank work towards the elimination of forced labour in the Uzbek cotton sector and develop a specific plan of cooperation with the government in this regard?
If the Uzbek government continues to use forced labour in the cotton sector on a massive scale, which steps will the World Bank take?
As we have reported to you, our independent monitors have faced unprecedented harassment since the World Bank has increased its investments in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector. What is the World Bank doing to create a safe space for independent groups and individuals monitoring the working conditions in areas benefiting from World Bank projects?
Instead of answering the questions, the World Bank replied:
“Thank you for your letter. We respect and share your concerns regarding the risks of forced labor in the cotton sector in Uzbekistan. We recognize and appreciate the extensive efforts made by international and local NGOs and CSOs to date.”
“As you rightly noted, the World Bank Group has been a long term development partner of Uzbekistan, providing advice and financial support to improve the country’s economic and social development and financial management. The new World Bank Country Partnership Framework for 2016-2020 for Uzbekistan focuses on three priority areas: private sector growth, agriculture competitiveness and cotton sector modernization, and improved public service delivery. To support private sector growth, the World Bank Group will help improve the business environment and support private sector investments in the country. To encourage agriculture competitiveness and cotton sector modernization, the Bank Group will support changes towards a more remunerative, market-based, job intensive agriculture system, along with more sustainable management of land and water resources. To enhance public service delivery, we will support improved access to water supply and sanitation, increased quality of education and health services, as well as better transport services and urban development.”
“More specifically, the World Bank Group considers the reform of the agriculture sector and modernization of cotton production in Uzbekistan to be critically important for the overall grown in the country and improvement of people’s lives. Agriculture constitutes the main source of employment for the rural population. With scarce land and water assets, a growing population, climate change risks and volative export markets, modernization of the agriculture sector is vital to improve its performance and support its integration into a more open and competitive economy, while creating much needed jobs and contributing to shared prosperity.”
“In this respect, recent steps taken by the Uzbek authorities are indicative of a broader shift in agriculture, responding to both the challenges of the global economy and new market opportunities for horticulture and livestock products for neighboring markets. To advance this agenda, the Government issued a resolution to reduce areas under cotton production by 170,000 ha by 2020, including a significant decrease in the driest and least productive areas such as the Jizzakh and Syrdarya regions. The Government issued documents aimed to support organized marketing and exports of about one-fifth of horticulture produce in the coming year. We understand that the Government of Uzbekistan is also planning for a broader development of the horticulture sector through investments in storage, processing, logistics, and quality assurance infrastructure and capacities.”
“On the policy level, the World Bank is assisting the country in framing a vision for market-led agricultural transformation, which is environmentally and socially sustainable, as well as economically and financially viable. We are working together with the Ministry of Agriculture to establish a sound diagnostic of Uzbekistan’s agricultural potential and constraints. This means identifying the country’s comparative advantages and opportunities on local, regional and international markets, as well as analyzing the constraints and bottlenecks that should be tackled to transform the sector and improve its performance.”
“On the ground, the World Bank is already actively engaged in supporting a diversification agenda. More than 550 concessional loans were provided to the local farmers for the development of horticulture activities, such as orchards, vineyards and greenhouses. Agro-entrepreneurs are supported in the development of storage, packing and processing facilities. Under a World Bank-funded project in Ferghana Valley, the recent rehabilitation of more than 1,300 km of irrigation and drainage canals is now providing more reliable water supply to farmers who, in turn, are able to increase productivity and diversify to higher-value and less water intensive crops. Recently collected data shows that the smallholder farmers have been able to increase orchard productivity by 68% and to diversify into other legume and vegetable crops by 15%.
“As we have stated previously, we are seriously concerned about the reports that some civil society activists in Uzbekistan have been detained while monitoring the use of labor in the cotton harvest. When allegations of reprisals are brought to our attention, we work with appropriate parties, within the scope of our mandate, to address them. We will continue monitoring the situation closely together with the ILO and other relevant UN bodies and will convey our concerns regarding the alleged harassment of independent monitors to the Government of Uzbekistan.”
“Finally, we would like to reiterate, the World Bank does not condone forced labor in any form and takes seriously the reports of such practices in the cotton production system in Uzbekistan. We believe that the most effective way to address the issue in Uzbekistan is to use a holistic approach through continuous country dialogue and collaboration with international agencies and donors, NGO and CSO community and through sector analytic work and policy dialogue, and specific project-level interventions. One of our main objectives is to help achieve a modernization of the agriculture sector that creates more jobs and higher income along with liberalization of the system of cotton production so that both the pressure for and risks of forced labor in this sector are reduced as far as possible in Uzbekistan”
Notably, the World Bank once again refuses to acknowledge the Uzbek government’s use of forced labour and its very real and not simply “alleged” retaliation against our monitors. Astonishingly after articulating a broad vision of a new Uzbek economy, the Bank’s goal concerning state-orchestrated forced labor is “reduced as far as possible.”
The Bank should consult with Mr. Kai and recognize that the repression by the Uzbek government removes all chance of development that meets the needs of the Uzbek people. The Bank’s members should recognize that its loans will continue to be linked to forced labor in Uzbekistan until the government ceases retaliating against citizens who report such violations of the law and until the government is held accountable for its use of coercion to mobilize labor for agriculture production, cotton and otherwise. Monitoring and complaint hotlines don’t work without protection for the people who report violations, and reform doesn’t happen if the government knows it will receive funding despite breaking its commitments.
 Maina Kiai, It’s Time for Development Bank to start Listening, Foreign Policy, 19 July 2016, available at: http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/07/19/its-time-for-development-banks-to-start-listening-maina-kiai/