UN Human Rights Committee Urges Uzbek Government to End Forced Labor & Respect Human Rights Defenders
This week the United Nations Human Rights Committee reported its concern about forced labour in the cotton and silk sectors and repression of the rights of citizens reporting human rights concerns in Uzbekistan.
The UNHRC is comprised of independent experts responsible for reviewing member states' implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Committee reviewed the government of Uzbekistan's application of the ICCPR on July 8 and 9, and adopted its concluding observations on July 20, 2015.
The Committee recommended that the Uzbek government
“put an end to forced labour in the cotton and silk sectors, inter alia by enforcing effectively the legal framework prohibiting child and forced labour, including by rigorously prosecuting those responsible for violations and improving working and living conditions. The State party should also review its laws and practices to ensure financial transparency and address corruption in the cotton industry and take all necessary measures to prevent deaths in connection with the cotton harvesting, investigate thoroughly such cases when they occur and provide effective remedies, including adequate compensation, to victims’ families.”
With these recommendations, the Committee highlights fundamental characteristics of forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector. It is state-orchestrated, so the government can end it by applying national and international laws prohibiting forced labor. It is a crime; thus, perpetrators of forced labor should be prosecuted. Corruption lies at the heart and pervades the cotton sector, and the financial system is a root cause of forced labor. Lives are at stake, and the responsibility for wrongful deaths connected with the cotton sector lie with the state.
The Committee also reports its concern about “consistent reports of harassment, surveillance, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement officers and prosecutions on trumped-up charges of independent journalists, government critics and dissidents, human rights defenders and other activists, in retaliation to their work.”
It recommended the Uzbek government should:
“Take immediate steps to provide, in practice, effective protection of independent journalists, government critics and dissidents, human rights defenders and other activists against any actions that may constitute harassment, persecution or undue interference in the exercise of their professional activities or of their right to freedom of opinion and expression, and ensure that such acts are thoroughly and independently investigated, prosecuted and sanctioned, and that victims are provided with effective remedies.”
Next month, the International Labour Organization (ILO) will meet with the Uzbek government to present a plan of action to address forced labor. The World Bank expects that the plan will include monitoring of forced labor, including a mechanism for citizens to report it, which the Bank has committed to establish and asked the ILO to implement. The ILO’s ability to conduct monitoring depends not only on whether the Uzbek government approves a plan of action, but also on whether the government follows the UN HRC’s recommendations. Without freedom of expression, the more than a million citizens forced to pick cotton by their government each year, cannot safely report the crime.
Read the UN HRC report here. In addition to forced labor and denial of repression of civil society, the Committee’s list of concerns includes: lack of independence of the national human rights institutions, discrimination, deaths in custody, torture, denial of due process, abusive detention conditions, denials of exit visas to human rights defenders, insufficient independence of the judiciary, denial of freedom of religion, unreasonable and burdensome restrictions on freedom of association, and flouting of the constitutional term limits to reinstate the president.
The government of Uzbekistan does not need more time or anyone else’s money to end forced labor, yet that is exactly what they requested during the United Nations Human Rights Committee review earlier this month.
During the review, the United States representative to the UNHRC asked the Uzbek government:
“With respect to forced labor, we commend the state’s efforts to eliminate systemic child labor in the cotton industry, but the information before the committee indicates that the reduction in child labor has resulted in an increase in the use of adult forced labor in this industry. It also suggests that forced labor is an element of a widespread system of corruption and extortion in the cotton industry, which is a source of significant income to the government. Therefore, in addition to the measures that you have mentioned you are attempting to take to address this issue, I would like to ask you what steps you are taking to enforce the national laws regarding forced labor, and in particular what steps you are taking to ensure financial transparency and address corruption in the cotton industry.
Second with respect to forced labor, you replied to the list of issues that you provided us with indicated that there have been no complaints received by trade unions regarding forced labor, but we were concerned by reports that the government has suppressed efforts to expose this practice. In particular this includes a report by Human Rights Watch that on May 31 this year, a human rights defender, Elena Urlaeva, was arrested and subjected to egregious ill treatment as a result of her efforts to document and expose the government’s use of forced labor in the cotton industry. Police and doctors reportedly forcibly sedated her and then subjected her to a body cavity search, x-rays and other abuse allegedly in an effort to obtain the memory chip for her camera. I would therefore appreciate if you could comment on the case of Ms. Urlaeva and what steps the government is taking to investigate these allegations and punish any perpetrators."
The U.S. government is correct to ask about enforcement of national laws, which prohibit forced labor, corruption in the cotton sector, and repression of civil society.
For a quarter century, Uzbekistan’s entire history as an independent nation state, the Uzbek government has used the largest state-orchestrated forced labor system of cotton production in the world. This spring, the government continued to use coercion to mobilize citizens to prepare cotton fields for planting, and in 2014 the government forced farmers to fulfill state-imposed quotas for cotton production and forced more than a million citizens to pick cotton, all under threat of punishment. The government’s use of forced labor violates national and international laws.
Later in the UNHRC review, the Uzbek government responded to the questions from the U.S. government by stating:
“There it was asked about the measures adopted by the government to do away with forced labor for the cotton harvest. Distinguished committee members, cotton is really valuable to Uzbekistan. It is one of the main sources of income, the foreign currency. And so, you know that the farmers own their land 100%, but not all farmers have yet been in a position to harvest their own crops themselves, but the cotton has to be harvested before the first rain so that it’s not spoiled. And so at present the state has to help the farmers to cut the cotton harvest. So what steps have been taken to help the farmers. Well for this year and for the next two or three years, cotton is mainly going to be harvested by specific machines, special machines. By 2016, 17 we very much hope that 90%of the cotton harvest will be done by specialized machinery technology. So the government is taking measures to mechanize the cotton harvest, but for that of course we do need time, and we do need the resources.”
Time, tractors and other people's money are not solutions to the problem of forced labor in Uzbekistan.
Forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector is not a new problem, and demands to end it have come from both within Uzbekistan and around the world for decades. Muhammad Bekjanov, recipient of Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Prize and the world’s longest imprisoned journalist, has spent 16 years in prison for documenting the government’s use of forced labor and other human rights abuses. The UN Human Rights Council, Committee on the Rights of the Child and Committee Against Torture have all reported concerns of forced labor and child labor and urged the Uzbek government to end the practice. The ILO has expressed concern since 2005 and in its latest report in 2015 reminded the government of Uzbekistan of workers’ inalienable right to free choice of employment without the menace of any penalty and urged the government to cooperate with the ILO and to eliminate forced labor. 175 global brands have pledged to avoid Uzbek cotton until forced labor is ended. The investment firm KLP excluded companies buying Uzbek cotton to avoid contributing to rights violations, and the bank BNP Paribas suspended “any type of financing of cotton from a country in Central Asia on the grounds that the country in question used forced labour during the picking season.”
Whether the government sends hands or tractors to the farms does not automatically end its forced labor of farmers. To do so, the government must cease the use of coercion by ending the practice of penalizing and threatening penalties against farmers in order to enforce state-imposed production quotas. To enable farmers to freely farm and hire voluntary labor, the government must also set the price for raw cotton higher than production costs or free prices entirely and de-monopolize input suppliers and cotton gins.
In response to the question about corruption in the cotton sector, the Uzbek government demanded foreign financial assistance for the sector. This, despite the fact that each year, over $1 billion from cotton sales disappears into a secret government fund to which only the highest-level officials have access, known as the Agro Fund. The national budgets do not include cotton expenditures and income, nor does the Uzbek legislature have access to the information. The government also extorts money directly from millions of people who are forced to make mandatory “contributions” to pay for labor, transportation, fines and other costs related to the harvest.
Furthermore, what would be the international community’s message to the victims of human rights violations if it were to pay the Uzbek government to end its practice of forced labor, ‘we’ll only support your fundamental human rights if we can replace the dollars in your oppressors’ pockets (that they currently extort from you) with taxes from other countries’ citizens?’
On the question of suppressing attempts to document the abuses, the Uzbek government’s was silent. As the U.S. government noted, the government not only denies freedoms of association and expression, it also resorts to violence against human rights defenders, such as the brutal treatment of Elena Urlaeva on May 31 after she documented forced labor in the cotton fields.
The Uzbek government not only has a forced labor problem but is the perpetrator of systematic forced labor, and must realize that pressure will continue until it ends the forced labor system, including repression of civil society.
Video of the United Nations Human Rights Committee Review of Uzbekistan, July 9 2015. The U.S. government asks the questions noted starting at 1:57. The Uzbek government's response starts at 2:42.
 United Nations Human Rights Council, “Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: Uzbekistan,” A/HRC/24/7, April 2013, paragraphs 133.40-45.
 Committee on the Rights of the Child, Concluding observations on the combined third and fourth periodic reports of Uzbekistan , adopted by the Committee at its sixty-third session (27 May- 14 June 2013), CRC/C/UZB/CO/3-4, Geneva, 10 July 2013, paragraph 65b and c
 United Nations Committee against Torture, “Concluding observations on the fourth periodic report of Uzbekistan,” November 2013, paragraph 22.
 International Labour Organization (ILO), “Direct Request (CEACR) - adopted 2005, published 95th ILC session (2006), Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105) - Uzbekistan (Ratification: 1997), available at http://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=1000:13100:0::NO:13100:P13100_COMMENT_ID:2249324
 International Labour Organization (ILO), “Report of the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations,” Report ILC.104/III(1A), at pages 173-176, http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_norm/---relconf/documents/meetingdocument/wcms_343022.pdf
Today, 35 trade unions, business associations, investors and human rights organizations sent the letter below to the International Labour Organization, and copies to the International Organisation of Employers (IOE), International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and World Bank. In the letter, we the Cotton Campaign call on the ILO, its members the IOE and ITUC, and the World Bank to press the government of Uzbekistan to end forced labor at a meeting scheduled this August.
For a quarter century, Uzbekistan’s entire history as an independent nation state, the Uzbek government has used the largest state-orchestrated forced labor system of cotton production in the world. A decade of global pressure encouraged the Uzbek government to significantly reduce its use of forced child labor and to sign a framework agreement with the International Labour Organization (ILO) in which it committed to work with the ILO to apply labor conventions, including eradicating forced labor, known as a Decent Work Country Programme (DWCP). Yet the core of the state-orchestrated forced labor system remains unaltered.
This spring, the government continued to use coercion to mobilize citizens to prepare cotton fields for planting, and in 2014 the government forced farmers to fulfill state-imposed quotas for cotton production and forced more than a million citizens to pick cotton, all under threat of punishment. The government silences human rights defenders who attempt to document the abuses, including through arrest and violence, such as the brutal treatment of Elena Urlaeva on May 31 after she documented forced labor in the cotton fields.
After receiving a complaint from Uzbek victims of forced labor, the World Bank committed to pull its loans if there is forced or child labor in its project areas in Uzbekistan and to establish third-party monitoring, including a feedback mechanism for people to report abuses, despite caution that third-party human rights monitoring is not feasible in Uzbekistan: the Uzbek government has only registered one human rights organization, limits its capacity by imprisoning its staff, and continues to control the trade unions.
At the World Bank's request, the ILO agreed to manage monitoring and a feedback mechanism for the Bank and jointly with the Uzbek government, but the ILO needs the government’s approval to implement these measures and any activity towards the DWCP objective of “eradicating forced labor in agriculture.” At the upcoming meeting, the ILO is expected to present the Uzbek government with a plan of action to apply ILO Conventions No. 29 and 105, which prohibit forced labor.
Letter [available in PDF here]:
July 21, 2015
Mr. Guy Ryder
International Labour Organization
4 route des Morillons
CH-1211 Genève 22
Dear Mr. Ryder:
In advance of the ILO’s August roundtable with the government of Uzbekistan, we write to express our appreciation for the ILO’s continuing efforts to advance the application of international labour standards in Uzbekistan. In light of the Uzbek government’s continued systematic use of forced labour, however, we also urge the ILO to use the upcoming meeting to again press the Uzbek government to fully apply Conventions No. 29 and 105.
This spring, human rights monitors in Uzbekistan have again reported that the Uzbek government forced students and state employees to prepare fields for planting, including in World Bank project areas. In May, the government arrested and brutalized Elena Urlaeva for documenting forced labour in the cotton fields. This follows well-documented reports that during last fall’s harvest the government forced farmers to meet state quotas for cotton production and forced more than a million of its own citizens to pick cotton. With these human rights violations, the government has demonstrated that it has yet to alter its forced labor system of cotton production, detailed in Appendix 1.
At your upcoming meeting with representatives of the Government of Uzbekistan to discuss the results of the ILO’s survey of recruiting practices in the agricultural sector and next steps we urge ILO to:
We look forward to hearing from you about the results of the roundtable and plans for next steps in its aftermath.
The Cotton Campaign, a global coalition of labor, human rights, investor and business organizations coalesced to end forced labor of children and adults in the cotton sector of Uzbekistan
Advocates for Public Interest Law
American Apparel & Footwear Association
American Federation of Teachers
Association for Human Rights in Central Asia
Australian Council of Trade Unions
Bennett Freeman, former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
Boston Common Asset Management
Daughters of Charity, Province of St Louise
Dominican Sisters of Hope
Environmental Justice Foundation
The Eurasian Transition Group, e.V.
FIDH | Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l'Homme | International Federation for Human Rights
International Labor Rights Forum
Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union
Mercy Investment Services
Portfolio Advisory Board, Adrian Dominican Sisters
Responsible Sourcing Network
Retail Council of Canada
St. Joseph Health
Shareholder Association for Research and Education
Stop the Traffik
Sukhrob Ismoilov, Uzbek human rights advocate
Textile Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia
Uniting Church in Australia, Synod of Victoria and Tasmania
U.S. Fashion Industry Association
Ursuline Sisters of Tildonk,U.S. Province
Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights
Walden Asset Management
CC: Mr. Kari Tapiola, Special Adviser to the Director-General, ILO
Ms. Corinne Vargha, Chief of the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work Branch, ILO
Mr. Daniel Funes de Rioja, President, International Organisation of Employers (IOE)
Ms. Linda Kromjong, Secretary-General, IOE
Mr. João Antonio Felicio, President, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)
Ms. Sharan Burrow, General Secretary, ITUC
Mr. Saroj Kumar Jha, Regional Director for Central Asia, World Bank
Appendix: “The System of Forced Labor Cotton Production in Uzbekistan”
 See: http://uzbekgermanforum.org/uzbek-government-continues-forced-labor-system-to-weed-cotton-fields/
 See: http://www.cottoncampaign.org/uzbek-police-brutalize-human-rights-monitor-elena-urlaeva.html
 See Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, “The Government’s Riches, the People’s Burden: Human Rights Violations in Uzbekistan’s 2014 Cotton Harvest,” April 2015, http://uzbekgermanforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/cotton_harvest_Online.pdf
International engagement & domestic repression: Uzbek government's split approach raises concern by the UK
In its latest assessment of human rights in Uzbekistan, the British government identifies a contradiction between the Uzbek government's engagement of the International Labour Organization and continued repression of human rights defenders who are its citizens.
The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) reports that it hopes the ILO's work in Uzbekistan will "enable human rights organisations to contribute to reporting on the extent to which ILO conventions are being implemented." The FCO adds that in March this year the Uzbek government arrested and deported an international labor rights consultant.
After the March deportation, the subsequent brutalization of a human rights defender for documenting forced labor in the cotton fields this spring indicated the Uzbek government continues to silence any independent monitoring of labor rights.
As cited in the UK's statement, , raising questions about the government's commitment to international labor rights.
This week the World Health Organization reported it is working with the Uzbek Ministry of Health to apply international hospital safety principles. In Uzbekistan, a good principle to start with would be permitting doctors and nurses to stay in hospitals and not forcing them to pick cotton.
In its report, the WHO notes that “Uninterrupted functioning of health services is of the highest importance in emergencies and disasters. Continuing functioning of hospitals depends on a range of factors, including the safety of its buildings, critical systems and equipment, the availability of supplies, and the emergency and disaster management capacity of the hospital.” Having doctors, nurses and other healthcare staff present would seem to be a vital factor for functioning hospitals. The Uzbek government apparently thinks otherwise.
In 2014, the Uzbek government forced more medical workers to pick cotton than ever before, in a cynical move to replace the children that the government had forced to pick cotton in previous harvests. Instead, sick children arrived at hospitals without doctors. Authorities sent up to 40% of all doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers in some regions. In all cases threats of being fired ensured that the medical workers obeyed orders to work in the cotton fields. The impacts on medical care were significant. As a nurse from Karakalpakstan reported,
“There weren’t enough doctors and nurses. [Those left] had to work double, and patients often had no one to attend to them.”
As part of its work in Uzbekistan, hopefully the WHO can support the Uzbek Health Ministry to refuse the central government’s demands for its workers and keep the doctors nurses and others in the hospitals, providing essential health care services.
See more reporting on forced labor in Uzbekistan here.
Uzbekistan lost another young farmer to suicide, reports Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty Uzbek Service “Radio Ozodlik”. On July 2, Nodirbek Khaydarov hanged himself, after officials threatened to imprison him for not fulfilling his state-imposed quota for wheat production, a victim of the government’s forced-labor system of agriculture.
The Uzbek government forces farmers to fulfill production quotas for cotton and wheat each year under threat of punishment, including loss of land, physical abuse, criminal and civil charges and fines. Regional, district and city officials as well as national security service and the police threaten penalties at regular meetings convened for the authorities to check on farmers’ progress towards state-assigned production quotas.
Mr. Khaydarov was only 29 years old and a resident of Paytug in Izboskan district, Andijan region. According to Ozodlik’s report, he had struggled to produce enough wheat to satisfy the Uzbek government for years.
In the last two years, Radio Ozodlik has reported four cases of farmers committing suicide after authorities severely coerced them to produce the state’s strategic crops. The suicides mark a low point in the government’s 25-year history of forcing farmers to fulfill production quotas under threat of penalty.
The Cotton Campaign sends its condolences to the family of Mr. Khaydarov. Furthermore, we call on the international community to press the Uzbek government to end its forced labor system of agriculture production.
Independent human rights researcher Allison Gill presented the following statement to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, on July 6, 2015:
Thank you Mr. Chair,
Members of the Committee, ladies and gentlemen,
The government of Uzbekistan’s treatment of human rights activists, independent civil society groups, and journalists gives rise to deep concern. The government has refused to register all independent human rights groups operating in Uzbekistan except for one, Ezgulik, and it systematically harasses, persecutes, and interferes with independent human rights work, including that of Ezgulik, and other peaceful civil society activity. At least 15 human rights defenders are in prison and many others have fled the country over the past decade, due to persecution. At least four journalists in Uzbekistan are in prison, including the two longest-imprisoned journalists in the world, Muhammed Bekjanov and Yusuf Ruzimurodov. Although the government brought criminal charges against the activists and journalists and claims they are in prison because they committed crimes, numerous independent observers believe that the charges were trumped up and in retaliation for their human rights or journalism work. The trials did not meet international fair trial standards and in many cases there are credible allegations of torture and other ill-treatment during pre-trial detention and in prison.
In a very recent example of government interference with the work of human rights organizations and assaults on activists, police in Chinaz, a city in the Tashkent region, detained Elena Urlaeva, head of the Human Rights Alliance, as she documented forced labor in the cotton fields. Urlaeva interviewed and photographed teachers and medical workers who said that local authorities ordered them to clear weeds from the fields. Police took Urlaeva to the district police station, where they interrogated her and subjected her to severe ill-treatment for 18 hours, including by injecting her with sedatives, and conducting a forcible body cavity search and x-rays, ostensibly to look for the camera’s memory card.
I would also like to draw your attention to the government of Uzbekistan’s use of widespread and systematic forced labor in the cotton and silk sectors. Cotton production in Uzbekistan is underpinned by one of the largest state-orchestrated forced labor systems in the world, undermining access to health, education, and other social services, and fostering widespread corruption. The government relies on forced labor to plant, weed, and harvest cotton. Government officials force millions to the fields each year using coercion, physical violence, and threats, including expulsion from education, loss of job, social benefits, or even prosecution. As of 2014, the government did not forcibly mobilize children systematically, although children still picked cotton in some regions. This shift did not represent a fundamental change in the government’s policy of using forced labor, however; it has simply increased the number of adults forced to work to compensate for reduced numbers of children in the fields. The government also extorts money directly from millions of people who are forced to make mandatory “contributions” to pay for labor, transportation, fines and other costs related to the harvest.
The government also forces farmers and public institutions such as schools, and medical clinics, to produce silk cocoons, which they must sell to the government at government-set prices. Silk cocoon production is labor and resource intensive and the government only pays a small advance to farmers at the beginning of the silk cocoon production season and then often pay nothing at all for the cocoons produced.
Thank you for your attention to these concerns.