“There is no independent agricultural sector in Uzbekistan” was the message from former UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray to the public hearing “From the Uzbek Cotton Fields to the Termez Military Base,” March 1, 2012, in Berlin. Prominent experts participated in the hearing to discuss the state-sponsored forced labor system of cotton production of the Uzbek government and their relationship with the West. The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) organized the hearing with the support of eight other NGOs, and presents video highlights of the experts’ testimonies here.
Participants in the hearing included Theo van Boven, former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Sanjar Umarov, Chairman of the Sunshine Coalition Uzbekistan, Patricia Flor, Special Envoy for Central Asia at the German Foreign Office, and Jan Egeland, Director of Human Rights Watch Europe and former UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs. They highlighted the importance of Western governments’ firmly supporting human rights in Uzbekistan, particularly in light of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) use of the Northern Distribution Network for its engagement in Afghanistan and the use of military bases in Uzbekistan by Germany and the U.S.
The German Foreign Office, represented by Special Envoy Patricia Flor, acknowledged that “initiating a [European Union] Human Rights Dialogue and intensifying cooperation between states has not yet moved as far as we would have liked towards a sustainable human rights situation.” Angelika Graf, Member of the German Parliament, urged the German government and all political actors to send the Uzbek government the clear message that state-controlled forced child labor shall no longer be tolerated.
Presenting the Uzbek state order system of cotton production, Craig Murray detailed the firm grip of the government of Uzbekistan over the entire cotton industry:
“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. The fact is that millions of people are effectively captive on state farms (…) they can’t choose not to be a cotton picker anymore. It’s not a choice open to them. If you are one of the small minorities of people in agriculture who actually figuratively own, at least a lease on your land, then you are anyway told what crops you have to grow, you’re told who you can sell them to, and you’re told what the price will be.”
While Craig Murray referred to Uzbekistan as a “totalitarian dictatorship”, Scott Horton, Harper’s Magazine, called it “the world’s largest family-owned business.”
On the urgent need for action, Jan Egeland, Human Rights Watch, urged participants, “to expect leadership from Germany,” after the German government played a central role in the removal of the EU sanctions against Uzbekistan, which had been imposed in the aftermath of the 2005 Andijan massacre. He added a plea to the EU to move from quiet diplomacy to a transparent, human rights-based policy on Uzbekistan, and to establish concrete benchmarks to effectively measure progress.
In concluding remarks, Theo van Boven, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, challenged Western leaders, stating
“We should never abandon the people of Uzbekistan because they deserve much better than what they have now under this repressive regime.”
This event was co-sponsored by the German-Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, Anti-Slavery International, Human Rights Watch, Uzbekistan Press Freedom Group, terres des hommes, Eurasian Transition Group, INKOTA-netzwerk and the Clean Clothes Campaign. The videos were realized by ecofilm sustainable film production.
The seven films are:
Part I: The state of human rights in Uzbekistan
Part II: State-sponsored child labor in the Uzbek cotton fields
Part III: The responsibility of economic actors
Part IV: The role of Germany and the EU
Part V: Termez, NATO, and conflict of democratic values
Part VI: Karimov regime: The "world's largest family-owned business"
Part VII: What should the West do?
View all videos here.
Advocates against the use of forced labor in Uzbekistan spoke out again today in an appeal to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Twenty-two representatives of human rights, trade union, apparel industry, retail, investor and other groups called on Secretary Clinton to urge the Uzbek government to take immediate steps to end forced labor, including children, in the cotton sector. The letter also said the Uzbek government should invite the International Labor Organization (ILO) to monitor the 2012 cotton harvest.
The letter precedes the US government’s planned release of its annual Global Trafficking in Persons (GTIP) report and the ILO’s annual International Labor Conference in June. Under the US Trafficking Victims Protection Re-authorization Act (TVPRA), the Uzbek government must present a written plan that constitutes “significant efforts” to eliminate forced labor, to avoid a downgrade in the 2012 global trafficking report, which would trigger automatic sanctions.
The Uzbek government has failed to meet this condition and has instead denied the existence of forced labor and has continued the state order system for cotton production. The state quotas are identified in the 2011 GTIP report as the root cause of the forced labor.
“Denying the International Labor Organization access to Uzbekistan during the cotton harvest for several years running and muzzling local activists who try to document forced child labor show that the Uzbek government is not credibly tackling this issue,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia Researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The US government needs to insist on independent monitoring by the ILO and local rights groups at a minimum to avoid a downgrade in the trafficking report.”
The Uzbek government remains one of the most repressive in the world. Reports about the 2011 harvest by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights highlighted the coercion of children as young as 10 and adults, allegedly including employees of the U.S. company General Motors, to pick cotton and to fulfill government quotas of cotton production.
During the 2011 cotton harvest, the Uzbek government also arbitrarily detained at least three well-known rights activists who were trying to monitor the use of forced and child labor during the cotton harvest, threatening criminal charges against two.
View the full text of the letter by clicking here.
Government of Uzbekistan Continues to Silence Human Rights Defenders, Despite Release of Prominent Uzbek Human Rights Defender
According to Uznews.net, human rights activist Alisher Karamatov was released on 12 April after completing six years of a nine-year prison term. The torture suffered by Mr. Karamotov and nearly simultaneous detention of other Uzbek human rights defenders indicates the gravity of human rights abuses by the Government of Uzbekistan. The GOU silencing its citizens, whose voices flicker as a spark of democracy in a state of repression, ensures continued human rights abuses, including the state controlled forced labor and forced child labor in the cotton industry.
Karmatov was an activist with the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan in Guliston, Syrdarya Region until April 29, 2006, when he was arrested along with fellow activist Azam Farmonov. He was charged with extorting money from farmers in Syrdarya Region to solve their problems with local officials. Amnesty International considered him a prisoner of conscience and named him a 2011 "priority case."
Karamatov's relatives have repeatedly warned that the activist faced violent forms of torture, such as being forced to stand naked in the cold. His wife, Namuna Karamatova, reported that the activist's health seriously deteriorated during his imprisonment. In 2008, a medical examination in prison determined that he had developed a serious form of tuberculosis in both of his lungs.
Karamatov’s release came on the heels of a visit by a US delegation headed by Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan J. Cook on March 27, 2012 to Tashkent. Such visits by high ranking US and EU diplomats often include negotiations to release individual prisoners of conscience. These negotiations benefit both sides: Uzbekistan demonstrates good will and ‘signs’ of progress on its human rights record, and the US (or EU) delegation does not return home empty handed – and with tangible evidence that their engagement and dialogue with the dictatorial regime is productive.
However, the productivity of this US visit seems to have been reduced to nil in light of the surrounding pattern of arrests and charges against other activists. By extending prison terms and detaining additional Uzbek journalists and human rights defenders, the GOU communicates that it will continue to deny its citizens’ their basic human rights.
Since January, 4 Uzbek human rights defenders and journalists have been imprisoned or their sentences extended:
1. Mukhammad Bekjanov completed a 13-year prison sentence in January, and by the end of the month the GOU extended his prison sentence for an additional 5 years for alleged “violation of internal prison rules,” a charge routinely used to justify extending the terms of prisoners of conscience. Mr. Bekhanov is the former editor of the newspaper Erk, a voice of opposition to the President Karimov regime. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Bekjanov and fellow Uzbek journalist Yusuf Ruzimuradov, hold world records in terms of the length of prison sentences for journalists.
2. Abdurasul Hudoynazarov, former chairman of the Angren branch of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan Ezgulik, recieved similar treatment by the GOU. Mr. Hudoynazarov was convicted for 9.6 years in 2006 and is serving time at Penal Colony No. 21. The prison administration recently charged him with “violation of internal prison rules.”
3. Erkin Kuziev, Chairman of the Ferghana Branch of Ezgulik, was charged with Articles 168 (Fraud) and 211 (Bribery) by the GOU in early April, as reported by Ezgulik on April 9.
4. Gulnaza Yuldasheva, member of the Uzbekistan Initiative Group of Human Rights Defenders, was detained on charges of bribery, as reported on April 12, 2012.
In the past, law enforcement agencies would plant drugs to justify the detention of activists. Now they now routinely use charges of fraud or bribery. The pretexts change, but the pattern of imprisoning and torturing human rights defenders and journalists continues and needs to stop. Protecting Uzbek people's rights to freedom of expression and association is essential to ending the state system of forced labor for the cotton harvest and laying the foundations of democracy.
See Human Rights Watch, "Uzbekistan: Activist Free but Crackdown Widening" for more coverage
On April 3rd, the Cabinet of Ministers of Uzbekistan approved an action plan “on additional measures on implementation of the Convention on Forced Labour and convention on Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention in 2012-2013”, as reported by UzDaily.com. Importantly, the announcement by President Islam Karimov’s administration acknowledges the existence of forced labor and forced child labor in Uzbekistan. Unfortunately, recent history suggests that such announcements by Mr. Karimov’s administration offer little promise of ending the state-sponsored forced labor and forced child labor in the cotton industry and other sectors. To the contrary, under its action plan, the Uzbekistan Government is to monitor forced child labor, a proposal that is akin to the proverbial fox guarding the hen house and a signal to the international community to urgently support independent monitoring by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
Over the last decade, the government of Uzbekistan has formed similar action plans, but the use of forced labor and forced child labor in the Uzbek cotton harvests is grave, persistent and systematically made possible by national government policy. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and International Organisation of Employers (IOE) have consistently reported that the Government systematically mobilizes children and adults to work the cotton harvest. Under this state-controlled forced labor system, there are an estimated 2.4 million children forced out of school and into the dangerous and dirty work of cotton harvesting each year. Their teachers, and just about anyone else in an organized group, are also forced to work the cotton harvest. In 2011, even employees of General Motors’ plants in Uzbekistan were reportedly forced to take leave from their jobs and work the harvest.
This latest announcement of an action plan by Mr. Karimov’s administration closely follows the report of the ILO Committee of Experts on the application of standards, released in March. The ILO Committee calls on the Government of Uzbekistan to accept an ILO monitoring mission and technical assistance. Mr. Karimov’s administration has refused independent observation and support from the ILO in the past. As reported by Human Rights Watch, “The government has moved to dismantle the independent legal profession and has closed off the country to independent monitoring and human rights work.” There is, as Human Rights Watch reports, “No One Left to Witness” the use of forced labor, forced child labor and repression of critical voices by the Mr. Karimov’s administration.
Governments, investors and purchasers of Uzbek cotton products should recognize that the formation of an action plan by Mr. Karimov’s administration offers little hope of ending forced labor and forced child labor in cotton production, and can seize the moment to communicate their support for an ILO mission to investigate and monitor fundamental labor rights in Uzbekistan.