By Mark P. Lagon, Bennett Freeman and Nate Herman
Uzbekistan’s foreign minister, Abdulaziz Kamilov, was one of the first foreign officials to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington this week. The meeting underscored Uzbekistan’s important role in the Northern Distribution Network, through which the United States moves supplies to the troops in Afghanistan.
But there is another, more sinister side to Uzbekistan. While many governments fail to effectively curb human trafficking and slave labor, Uzbekistan stands out. It is the only country where the government is the trafficker.
Each year, the Uzbek government forces hundreds of thousands of its own citizens to pick cotton. Schools are closed and students are threatened with expulsion. Business hours are reduced and workers are threatened with losing their jobs. Essential services are downgraded as teachers, doctors and nurses are forced to pick cotton. Uzbek citizens who fail to meet their government-ordained quotas must pay large sums to hire alternate pickers.
Cotton is king in Uzbekistan.
It is the prime source of revenue for the central government, which is led by a former communist party boss, President Islom Karimov. He and his cronies have taken the old Soviet central economic planning system and perfected it.
The central government tells farmers how much cotton to plant, buys it on the cheap at below market prices and sells it abroad at a huge profit. And state-sponsored forced labor is the lubricant that keeps the creaky gears of this economically irrational system from collapsing.
Since 2007, a coalition of apparel companies, labor and human rights groups, and socially conscious investors has pressed the Uzbek government to stop the practice of forced labor. The United States and other Western governments have pressured Tashkent too.
But the Uzbek government continues to deny there is a problem. Despite committing to meet international standards, Tashkent steadfastly refuses to allow the International Labor Organization to monitor the situation on the ground.
But this year there is a sign that pressure is reaching the Uzbek authorities, even if it has only resulted in cosmetic changes. Unlike in past years, the Uzbek government did not close all of the country’s elementary schools and force young children to join the harvest. The move, however, appears to be a public relations stunt. The government made up the loss in free labor by forcing more children ages 15 to 18, and more adults to pick cotton. It simply swapped age groups without reducing the scope of the problem.
Nevertheless, there is one more tool at the Obama Administration’s disposal. Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, the Department of State will no longer be able to list—in its annual report on the worst offenders of sex and labor trafficking—Uzbekistan as just one more country that is planning to address trafficking in persons. By June, State must either upgrade Uzbekistan to a country that is taking sustained and significant action or downgrade it to the lowest category, which brings with it the threat of sanctions.
Senior U.S. officials need to make clear to the Uzbek government that to avoid sanctions it must agree to allow the ILO to monitor the harvest this fall. The ILO is the most competent international body to determine the true scope of the problem and to begin working with Tashkent on a serious plan to address it.
Critics of this policy likely will argue that the U.S. should not risk angering the Uzbek government because we need its railroads and airspace to supply our troops in Afghanistan and facilitate their withdrawal. But as President Obama said in his inaugural address, the U.S. must support democracy and human rights abroad “because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.”
When political change inevitably comes to Uzbekistan, the Uzbek people will remember if the United States did everything it could to help end their servitude. The answer may well shape their attitudes towards the United States and whether our walk matches our talk, long after Karimov has exited from the scene and Afghanistan drops from the top ranks of U.S. foreign policy challenges. Involuntary servitude in cotton-picking ought to be one thing the U.S. calls plainly for abolishing.
The authors are members of the Cotton Campaign, which includes unions, investors, retailers, and organizations, all working to end forced labor in Uzbekistan. For more information or to get involved, visit cottoncampaign.org.
Mark P. Lagon served as U.S. Ambassador-at-Large to Combat Trafficking in Persons from 2007 to 2009. Bennett Freeman served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Rights and Labor under President Clinton. Nate Herman is the Vice President of International Trade at the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA)
The following article by Voice of America was originally published in the Uzbek language and is available here.
The translation into English follows:
"While the delegation headed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan Abdulaziz Kamilov visited Washington yesterday, U.S. activists held a protest in front of the Uzbek Embassy.
Coalition of dozens of organizations and companies for several years trying to draw international attention to the problem of child exploitation in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan.
According to the representative of the American Federation of Teachers, the Coalition is concerned about the state-sponsored exploitation of the population.
"We want to draw attention to the fact that the forced labor of children is organized by the state. In the development of cotton production, the government forces officials, teachers, children, citizens, like slaves to go to the fields. Private business is also involved in the forced labour. Uzbekistan is different in that it is state-sponsored exploitation," said Abby Mills.
Coalition members came with placards to the Uzbek Embassy. Two people were kept out of the Uzbek cotton fabric embroidered with images of children working in the fields.
According to the international coalition in the last season, despite promises, Uzbek government again sent the children to pick cotton, although in smaller numbers. Coalition demand Tashkent to allow representatives of the International Labour Organization to assess the situation during the upcoming cotton season.
To date, 130 companies reported that exclude Uzbek cotton from their products. That's 50 companies more than last year.
As a result, the South Korean company Daewoo, working in the textile industry of Uzbekistan, which has three factories and clothing stores around the world have lost the cooperation with some major apparel manufacturers.
"Our campaign has increased from year to year and it seems Uzbek government listen our demands. The was less children in the fields, but they have been replaced with older children and adults. But it is also compulsory practice. We demand to stop it completely," said the head of the International Labor Rights Forum Judy Gearhart.
Protesters taking the opportunity of the visit of Uzbek Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdulaziz Kamilov in Washington intended to deliver a letter, but no one came out from the embassy to get it."
Today, Human Rights Watch calls on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to raise human rights abuses during talks with Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov and other Uzbek officials, during their visit to Washington DC, March 11-13. The HRW press release is forwarded below and, along with other human rights issues that HRW addresses, conveys fundamental messages of the Cotton Campaign:
"The country uses government-sponsored forced labor of adults and children during the cotton harvest."
and, included in HRW's recommendations to the government of Uzbekistan,
"End forced labor of adults and children in the cotton sector, allow independent monitoring by the International Labour Organization, and allow independent nongovernmental organizations and activists to conduct their own monitoring without harassment."
Human Rights Watch Press Release: For Immediate Release
Uzbekistan: Kerry Should Raise Rights Abuses at Talks
Peaceful Opponents in Prison, Torture Endemic, UN Rights Monitors Rebuffed
(Washington, DC, March 7, 2013) – US Secretary of State John Kerry should publicly express concern about Uzbekistan’s deteriorating human rights situation during his meeting with the Uzbek foreign minister on March 12, 2013, and press for concrete improvements, Human Rights Watch said today.
Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov and other high-level Uzbek officials will visit Washington, DC, from March 11 to March 13, at a time of deepening US military engagement with Uzbekistan over its role in the war in Afghanistan.
“Uzbekistan wants a deal from the United States – ignore human rights abuses in exchange for transit rights for US troops leaving Afghanistan – and John Kerry shouldn’t bite,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The US should know by now it has little to gain by a close association with a government that routinely abuses the fundamental rights of its own citizens, and unnecessary, since the Uzbek government needs the US as much as the US needs it.”
The visit comes as the US, along with key European Union member states such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and France, are deepening their military engagement with Uzbekistan over the need to move equipment and supplies as the Western military engagement in Afghanistan winds down.
Since 2009, Uzbekistan has played a growing role in US efforts to secure supply routes to Afghanistan, chiefly through Uzbekistan’s involvement in the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) – a set of commercial agreements with Central Asian states to allow the transit of non-lethal cargo to supply US forces in Afghanistan. The network is an alternative to what administration officials have said are increasingly unstable supply lines through Pakistan, and will be increasingly needed as Western troops depart Afghanistan. The United States and other NATO member states pay transit fees and have entered into contracts that are lucrative for local companies in Uzbekistan, as well as for the Uzbek government.
On February 27, testifying at a hearing before the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, a US State Department official confirmed that the Obama administration notified Congress in January of its intent to provide additional military assistance to the Uzbek government.
The assistance will consist of hand-held “Raven” unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for use by Uzbek border guards. In 2012, the US provided other “non-lethal” items, including body armor and other protective equipment, night vision goggles, and thermal imaging sensors for border patrol forces. Congressional and media sources have reported that Uzbek officials are also asking to buy “Apache” attack helicopters from the Pentagon.
Beginning in 2004, Congress restricted assistance to Uzbekistan based on its deplorable rights record, including systematic torture and the imprisonment of peaceful activists. Congress tightened those restrictions following the Andijan massacre of May 2005, when Uzbek government forces shot and killed hundreds of mainly peaceful protesters in the eastern city of Andijan.
However, in January 2012, the Obama administration exercised authority that Congress granted it to waive rights-related sanctions and to re-start military aid to Tashkent. The deeply troubling move was made even though Uzbekistan had made no meaningful human rights improvements, Human Rights Watch said.
The British Ministry of Defence also announced in February that it had reached a deal with Tashkent to “gift” certain leftover military equipment from the war in Afghanistan as part of its military withdrawal.
Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-California) stated in the February 27 hearing that during his recent visit to Tashkent, Uzbek officials asked to buy American weaponry to replace the Uzbek military’s mostly Soviet-era arsenal. In January, The New York Times reported that Uzbek officials have also asked US officials for armored utility trucks, known as mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles.
“Washington and London may have to deal with the Uzbek government on Afghanistan, but the issue is how they do it,” Swerdlow said. “President Islam Karimov, who craves Western recognition and legitimacy, relies heavily on NATO’s military presence in Afghanistan, and his government reaps enormous sums in transit fees. The US and UK should be driving a harder bargain on human rights – not just equipping a government known for repression before it makes even the slightest steps toward reform.”
Uzbekistan’s human rights record remains atrocious, with no meaningful improvements in 2012, Human Rights Watch said. In the last year, Uzbek authorities intensified their crackdown on civil society, placing human rights activists under house arrest and incommunicado detention for peaceful civic activism, extending the prison sentences of peaceful opposition figures without due process, and deporting international journalists who attempt to visit the country.
According to United Nations bodies and the 2011 report by Human Rights Watch “No One Left to Witness,” torture is endemic to Uzbekistan’s criminal justice system. Over a dozen rights defenders, and numerous independent journalists and opposition activists, are in prison in retaliation for their work or criticism of the government.
The country uses government-sponsored forced labor of adults and children during the cotton harvest. Authorities still deny justice for the Andijan massacre, rebuffing calls for an independent investigation into the deaths of several hundred protesters, most of them unarmed. The Uzbek government also defies longstanding requests by 11 United Nations human rights experts to visit the country.
“Lethal or not, providing military equipment to a government engaged in severe, ongoing abuses sends a terrible message that torture, forced labor, and repression are cost-free,” Swerdlow said. “Kerry should make clear when he sits down with Uzbekistan’s foreign minister on March 12 that the status quo won’t do.”
Kerry should press the Uzbek foreign minister to:
For more Human Rights Watch reporting on Uzbekistan, please visit: