Twenty organizations today signed a letter to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging the US government not to resume "business as usual" with Uzbekistan due to persistent and serious human rights problems such as torture and forced child labor.
The groups included human rights organizations Amnesty International USA, the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, Freedom House, Freedom Now, and Human Rights Watch; labor unions AFL-CIO and labor rights groups International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF and The Child Labor Coalition as well as Tashkent-based organizations such as the Expert Working Group and the exile groups Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights.
The activists expressed concern over approval by the Senate Appropriations Committee that will allow a waiver of human rights restrictions under US law to enable US military assistance to the Uzbek government.
“We call on you to stand behind your strong past statements regarding human rights abuses in Uzbekistan,” the signatories said in their letter to Clinton. “We strongly urge you to oppose passage of the law and not to invoke this waiver.” The Obama administration has called on Congress to support the waiver to enable such assistance as bullet-proof jackets for Uzbek law-enforcers.
The language already approved on September 21 will likely be included in an eventual foreign operations bill voted on later this year, barring the unlikely case of any senator willing to hold up the whole bill over Uzbekistan.
In a separate action, about 60 activists staged a picket today in Washington, DC in front of the Hotel W, site of an all-day Annual Business Forum of the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce (AUCC).
Foreign Minister Elyor Ganiev as well as US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Susan M. Elliott were scheduled to speak at the meeting, which included a number of high-level corporate executives from companies doing business with Uzbekistan, such as Honeywell, General Motors (GM), General Electric, and NUKEM.
Participants in the demonstration included the American Federation of Teachers, Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, the National Consumers League, the Solidarity Center and the Coalition of Labor Union Women. They were joined by Yusuf Sobirov and his fellow Uzbek emigre community members active in the Uzbek People's Movement (also known as the People's Movement of Uzbekistan).
Judy Gearheart, Executive Director of the International Labor Rights Forum, who helped organize the picket, told EurasiaNet, "We are wherever they are," referencing the AUCC meeting. "This [picketing] will not stop. We will be dogging them until the Uzbek government allows a high-level International Labor Organization delegation to enter Uzbekistan, and we will keep demanding accountability until the practice of forced child labor ceases."
Tashkent has not permitted the ILO to enter Uzbekistan to inspect the cotton fields during the harvest, and activists remain concern about numerous reports of student labor used this year, with children as young as 10 bussed to the fields. UNICEF has been doing a limited amount of observation, but has cautioned that this is not a substitute for the ILO's formal labor rights monitoring, EurasiaNet reported.
On their website notice of the meeting, the AUCC said that recent positive developments in US-Uzbek bilateral relations had been cause for expanding their annual meeting -- a likely reference to the waiver approved in the Senate Appropriations Committee and increasing engagement by the US with Uzbekistan for the sake of the Northern Distribution Network supporting the war in Afghanistan.
After the demonstration was publicized, the AUCC removed the detailed agenda from their website, but it can still be viewed here.
GM has been doing business for years in Uzbekistan and plans to open a new $521 million plant later this fall. Labor activists are concerned about reports that workers from some GM shops have allegedly been sent on "vacation," enabling them to be forcibly mobilized for the cotton harvest by the Uzbek government.
This article originally appeared on the blog Choihona at EurasiaNet.