It's going to be hard for international organizations to claim that Uzbekistan is making any progress on the issue of forced child labor in agriculture when the government continues to bluntly, vociferously deny reality.
The Expert Working Group, a collection of young human rights activists in the country, participated in the 98th session of the UN Human Rights Committee in New York, and has just posted this account of the review session on 11-12 March. Akmal Saidov, the government's representative and head of the "National Human Rights Institute" (at one time created and richly funded by the UNDP, btw) had this to say (my translation from the Russian):
Assertions that forced child labor is used to harvest cotton have no basis in fact...Not long ago, Uzbekistan halted sales of cotton to the US and to other European countries. We used to sell cotton through the Liverpool cotton exchange, but at the present time we sell cotton through the Tashkent cotton exchange. Of course this does not suit those trading companies that used to buy Uzbek cotton. Accusations on the use of forced child labor are part of their massive misinformation campaign. This is an instrument of unfair economic and trade competition. Moreover, cotton is grown by farmers, and the government doesn’t meddle in their activity.
There are so many different lies and distortions here, one hardly knows where to begin. What is notable though is that Saidov didn't try the usual tactic: it's family-driven, on family farms, and besides we have laws, committees, etc. Rather--just total denial. Even though the HRC (not to mention the Committee on the Rights of the Child) has been questioning them on the issue for 5 years now. It's a stance likely to frustrate those international organizations that are trying to make progress working the inside track with Uzbekistan. It certainly doesn't help to justify their "quiet diplomacy" approach.
Tomorrow and Friday, the UN body that reviews states' adherence to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, will consider Uzbekistan's latest (third) regular report.
Previous reviews have highlighted the issue of forced child labor, and in fact this year's list of questions that the committee submits to the government ahead of the review specifically asks:
17.1. Please provide information on the effectiveness of the steps taken by the State party to enforce the legal provisions (Rights of the Child [Safeguards] Act of 2008) aimed at eradicating child labor, including very young children e.g. in the cotton industry (previous concluding observations, para. 25).
The government's written reply pushes the art of bureaucratic obfuscation to new heights (or new lows). Inter-agency committees, task forces, ministries of labor and education, the procuracy, all holding meetings, seminars, prophylactic discussions, printing brochures and booklets and posters...a whirlwind, no, a tsunami of activity, all aimed at eradicating child labor. Funny how the three-and-a-half page single space reply avoids mention of the continued, well-documented and widespread mobilization of children for the cotton harvest, on government orders. But what it does mention, several times, is government cooperation with UNICEF:
Together with UNICEF, the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection held a round table on August 8, 2009, in which the General Prosecutor's office, the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Public Education, the Ministry of Health, the center for specialized professional training, the Council of Federated Trade Unions, the Kamolot movement and the Mahalla Foundation all took part... The Ministry of Labor and Social Protection has signed an agreement with UNICEF on carrying out a sub-project, "Support for the Realization of the National Plan of Action on Child Labor," of the Annual Defense of the Child work plan, which includes: creation of a joint working group; carrying out research on the social protection of vulnerable children; increasing awareness of child labor; developing informational and training materials; carrying out trainings and the creation of pilot centers; developing minimum standards for children with special needs, etc.
Splendid, isn't it? More working groups! More research! The government is hoping that the committee, in a year that human rights activists have found the worst, most exploitive ever for children in the cotton harvest, will take participation in UNICEF-sponsored seminars as evidence of change. The Committee's experts, one hopes, are not so gullible...now if one could only say the same of UNICEF.
The thickest thread in the interlocking economic web that keeps child slavery in place is of course the international cotton purchasers that allow the regime to profit from exploitation. But international development banks have a not-insignificant role too, considering they provide loans for agricultural projects, technical assistance, and, critically, political cover for this appalling practice, with their "hear no evil, see no evil" approach.
The head of the Asian Development Bank, Haruhiko Kuroda, was in Uzbekistan on February 16 meeting with President Karimov in February, promising new loans and intensified cooperation. Wonder if this means continued carte blanche to abuse children? Uzbekistan has already received loans from the bank totaling more than 1.2 billion USD. The great irony is that while agriculture (especially irrigation) is the target of much of the ADB's lending, improving the quality of primary education is the other. You might think that encouraging the government to actually allow children to attend primary school would be an obvious step in that direction--that is, unless you were the ADB. So much for the ADB's mission of "fighting poverty."
A modest proposal: if international organizations feel incapable of speaking out against Uzbekistan's state-sponsored child exploitation (can't damage that all-important mandate, can we?), at the very least they should be able to avoid promoting it. Can we agree?
Unfortunately this seems like too much to ask. The World Bank has decided to devote this year's small grants program, intended to develop Uzbek NGOs, to the topic of "creating conditions for upbringing healthy and harmoniously developed generation, and realization of the young people’s creative and intellectual potential"--yes, the government's own propaganda theme for 2010, expressly intended to obscure its annual mass child mobilization. The deadline for the competition is next week, so it will be interesting to see what projects are actually funded.
Institutionally, the Bank seems to have very little to say on the matter of child labor. On a web-page headed "child labor" it describes its partnership with UNICEF and the ILO on a research project called the Understanding Children's Work initiative, that seems to have more to do with promoting youth employment than with stopping child exploitation:
The primary areas of focus for the partnership are Africa and the Middle East, as well as Latin America. The partnership works together on several projects designed to better understand the determinants of youth labor market outcomes, to learn what works to promote youth employability, and to promote evidence-based policy debate and coordination.
The Bank's materials on Uzbekistan make little or no mention of the problem, including a 2005 research report that explicitly deals with the subsidy and taxation policy (including labor and income taxes) that structure the current system of cotton-growing, which completely ignored the massive subsidy inherent in the forced mobilization of low- or no-cost child labor. And, like the ADB, World Bank officials just can't get enough of Uzbekistan, it seems: its new country manager there, Loup Brefort, has been quoted extolling results in the country, and announcing 150 million euros worth of new projects.