“Uzbekistan has been run with unflinching severity by 74-year-old former Soviet party boss Islam Karimov since before the country gained independence in 1991...”
“…government troops indiscriminately gunned down hundreds of protesters in the eastern city of Andijan in 2005.”
“With access to the country barred to almost all foreign reporters, verifying claims by some State Department officials that the rights situation has improved marginally is virtually impossible.”
“…investments enthusiastically backed by Washington are trickling in.”
Yes, the last quote describes the same government of Uzbekistan accurately characterized as a gross violator of human rights in the first four quotes of Peter Leonard’s article for the Associated Press, “US cozies up to outcast Uzbekistan as it seeks regional support for Afghanistan withdrawal.”
The apparel industry is often the first investor in particularly high-risk locations and has already signaled its interest in Uzbekistan, due to its production of cotton. Before considering Uzbekistan as the next frontier in low-cost apparel production, companies ought to take note that they risk their brand when they turn a blind eye to human rights violations. Conducting business with Uzbek cotton directly supports the government of Uzbekistan and therefore means complicity in violating the rights of Uzbek citizens. As described by former UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray, “You have to look on cotton, not only as the means by which the Uzbek state funds itself, in very large degree, but as a means of social control.”
Every year the government of Uzbekistan forcibly mobilizes over a million children, teachers, public servants and employees of private businesses for the manual harvesting of cotton. The Uzbek government requires farmers to grow cotton, and local provincial government offices (khokimiyats) forcibly mobilize adults and children to harvest cotton and meet assigned quotas. Children as young as 10 years old are also forced to weed and prepare cotton fields in the springtime. The practice drives farmers into poverty, some to suicide. In April, the middle-aged cotton farmer Komil Kambarov committed suicide, out of frustration after 12 years of fulfilling the cotton quota demanded by the Uzbek government and solely for the government’s benefit.
The breadth of the stifling control of the Uzbek government - “the world’s largest family-owned business” as characterized by Scott Horton of Harper’s Magazine – extends throughout the economy. Government employees, teachers, factory workers and doctors are also commonly forced to participate in the harvest alongside children, with no additional compensation and under threat of punishment. During the 2011 harvest, employees of the General Motors plant in Andijan were forced to pick cotton.
Investing in Uzbekistan also means high risk of the investors losing their proverbial shirts, or trading them in for prison garb. In 2011, British mining company Oxus Gold closed Uzbek operations in 2011, citing an “ongoing campaign by the Uzbek government to steal the last foreign assets in the mining industry,” and an Oxus employee remains in prison on vague allegations. The global giant in the textile industry Spentex Industries Ltd. was forced into bankruptcy and has recently initiated a lawsuit against the Uzbek government to recover its losses.
Companies looking to invest in Uzbekistan should consider that doing so risks supporting a government that massacred innocent protesters, annually forces children and adults to harvest cotton to fill the state’s coffers, and silences citizens who attempt freedom of speech, and losing their business.
As so aptly put by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton today, “It’s true that clamping down on political expression or maintaining a tight grip on what people read, say or see can create an illusion of security. But illusions fade — because people’s yearning for liberty don’t.” In the interest of security and economic development in Uzbekistan, the US would do well to heed the Secretary’s observation and condition support for the government of Uzbekistan on improved human rights, beginning with ending its system of forced labor in the cotton sector.