Who will monitor the use of forced child labor in Uzbekistan this year? With the International Labor Organization (ILO) still not permitted to enter Uzbekistan, with Human Rights Watch kicked out of Uzbekistan, with local groups increasingly under fire from the dictatorial regime of President Islam Karimov, the job of telling the truth about the forced labor of hundreds of thousands of children is getting harder.
The online independent news site uznews.net reported that sources within the ILO told them this week that the Uzbek government has refused to allow the ILO to visit Uzbekistan to monitor the 2011 Uzbek cotton harvest. The decision was said to have been made despite a personal request by European Commission President José Manual Barroso during President Islam Karimov's visit to Brussels in January.
Of course, at the front lines will be local human rights groups who themselves are under intense pressure from the government, who in the past have bravely served as witnesses to the abusive practice. Because of their intrepid reporting, in the last harvest season, the Uzbek government sent more police and troops into the fields to prevent outsiders from monitoring labor conditions. Nevertheless, courageous human rights leaders like Elena Urlayeva literally crawled along the rows of cotton plants, snapping pictures -- until police grabbed her cell phone and deleted photos she took of children working in the fields.
Human Rights Watch has struggled to keep a presence in Uzbekistan for years -- but last month it was forced to pull out of Tashkent as authorities announced its office was being liquidated and its staff were denied accreditation. In an op-ed piece in the New York Times about his experiences trying to get registered in Uzbekistan, HRW researcher Steve Swerdlow said, "it has been clear for years that the government does not want anyone reporting on human rights violations."
The Uzbek government has tried to close off not just Human Rights Watch, but any scrutiny of its rights record. Only one active domestic rights group, Ezgulik, is registered, but it faces constant persecution. Uzbekistan’s activists carry on their work despite daily harassment and the constant danger of surveillance, de facto house arrest, beatings, denial of exit visas, punitive civil or criminal charges — or worse.
It's not just Human Rights Watch -- a number of groups from the American Bar Association to the Open Society Foundation to Freedom House have been forced to leave as well. Says Swerdlow:
Since 2004 the government has kicked out almost every international nongovernmental organization. It has prevented most international news agencies from reporting in the country, and the few remaining local independent journalists work under threat of defamation cases that can result in crippling fines or prison time.
For years the government has persecuted and imprisoned thousands of people for alleged “fundamentalism,” and tortured many of them. It forces thousands of schoolchildren, some as young as 10, to work on the cotton harvest for two months a year. And torture and ill-treatment are widespread and systematic in pretrial detention and prisons.
With the price of independent human rights work so high, it's a wonder that so many dedicated people still keep trying to get the word out. But it has been increasingly hard, as the international community doesn't sufficiently support them, driven by geopolitical and energy security concerns. As Swerdlow explains,
Part of the reason Uzbekistan has been able to get away with all this is that the West, which is increasingly pursuing a policy of re-engagement because of Uzbekistan’s border with Afghanistan and deposits of natural gas, thinks the Uzbek government has gained the upper-hand.
The ILO is set to review Uzbekistan in June at the International Labor Conference, and Tashkent may reverse this decision as it comes under more scrutiny from the international community. Recently, a group of American business, labor and human rights leaders urged the Uzbek ambassador in Washington to seek his country's permission for the ILO to come to Uzbekistan during the cotton harvest in the fall.