The Jamestown Foundation Eurasia Daily Monitor has published a disturbing two-part article by Umida Hashimova, "US Repeats Policy Mistakes in Uzbekistan," on the issue of forced child labor in Uzbekistan. The author, originally from Uzbekistan herself, claims the issue of child labor in her homeland is misrepresented and exaggerated, and implies that those who take up the cause do so for politicized motives. Ultimately, she suggests that protesting about this practice to the Uzbek government will only harm US-Uzbek relations and America's strategic interests in the region.
Yet her argumentation, while methodical, leaves out the obvious counterpoint – not only has the Uzbek government made an international commitment to end forced child labor, the International Labor Organization is rightly calling Tashkent to account as NGOs and international agencies continue to document the use of children in the cotton harvest.
Hashimova's argumentation references UN treaties and international norms to make a development-based but ultimately disingenuous argument that because Uzbekistan has higher literacy, better economic indicators, and more cases of prosecution of trafficking than its neighbors, it should not be targeted for censure for its failure to comply with International Labor Organization's (ILO) conventions -- conventions which Uzbekistan has signed and ratified, and claims it is in the process of fulfilling. Recently, in fact, the government created a new inter-agency task force to monitor the issue, a move greeted with skepticism by activists but which indicates that the regime is going through the motions of compliance rather than outright rejection of the principles at stake.
The articles appear to have been sparked by the position that the U.S. government has taken through the US government's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, known as G-TIP. G-TIP publishes a comprehensive report on trafficking in 175 countries each year, and has been critical of Uzbekistan, placing it in the category of "tier 2," countries needing improvement.
Hashimova objects to the inclusion of forced child labor in the list of G-TIP, which was established to implement the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol, on the grounds that ostensibly the UN treaty would apply only to forcibly taking persons across state borders.
Yet as the G-TIP web page explains, for the last 15 years, "“trafficking in persons” and “human trafficking” have been "used as umbrella terms for activities involved when someone obtains or holds a person in compelled service" – regardless if they are transported.
Hashimova makes a literalist and abstract interpretation of the UN treaty, yet in fact, as the treaty is applied by states as well as UNODC, the notion of human trafficking does not require transport of persons but merely "acquisition of people by improper means such as force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them."
She also cites the absence of any statement from UNICEF or UNDP on the issue of child labor as a form of trafficking per se as somehow evidence that it does not constitute such an offense. In fact, UNICEF has recently begun to break a long-standing silence on the issue, admitting that its methodology for examining the problem had been incomplete. It’s also well known that the UN agencies operating in Central Asia tend to mute their criticism of the autocratic regimes of their host countries to ensure they continue to maintain a presence there and at least complete some helpful projects.
WHY SINGLE OUT UZBEKISTAN?
Hashimova is not only concerned about definitional issues, however, but attacks the US government as well as non-governmental campaigns against child labor in Uzbekistan as unbalanced and unfair. Uzbekistan has "been doing much more than its neighbors," she says, to investigate and prosecute sex-trafficking and the abuse of labor migrants.”
In reality, Uzbekistan's record is far from perfect and its means of combating sex trafficking extremely harsh. Since January 2011, for example, unmarried women under 35 are being denied exit visas from Uzbekistan unless they can produce parental consent and numerous other references, on the suspicion that they may engage in prostitution, uznews.net reported.
Hashimov also objects to what she sees as a selective approach by civil society protesters against forced child labor. Uzbekistan's neighbors, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, also have issues with forced labor in their cotton harvests, but have not been singled out by NGO campaigns. India, Pakistan or China have child labor problems, too. Why don't activists work on those countries?
THE CULTURAL EXCUSE
Another argument is that work for children is customary in Uzbekistan and seen by the community as good for children. "The involvement of children in labor has a cultural aspect, which was promoted once the collectivization process started in the Soviet era. Children were encouraged to help their farmer parents and relatives in cotton, corn, vegetable or other fields,” she writes.
But child labor is only beneficial if the work comes after school and is not coerced, or taking place in terrible conditions. The ample documentation of children in the harvest illustrates that it is not children in farm families, but the children of parents who are employed outside of agriculture in other sectors who are coerced to pick cotton. The students are bused by school or government officials, and teachers, doctors, soldiers and other workers are also pressed into service by the state in public drives for the harvest.
Interestingly, a statement made by a UNICEF official at a recent panel discussion was that cotton-picking is not good for children -- they are exposed to toxic pesticides and harsh and debilitating working conditions.
Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State in the Clinton Administration, used to have two sayings that she would invoke when these kinds of arguments were made. The first was, “It’s not cultural, it’s criminal” – in endless disputes about whether violence against women was tolerable for cultural reasons. The same notion applies to forced child labor. Albright’s other saying was, “Just because you can't act everywhere doesn't mean you don't act anywhere.”
LABOR RIGHTS ARE UNIVERSAL
Unions and human rights groups certainly recognize the universality of labor and human rights, affirm them everywhere, and work where they can be effective. In that respect, NGO work on the child labor issue in Uzbekistan because of a confluence of factors -- there are groups working on the issue inside the country who ask for solidarity, and who can get information out; the problem is also well-documented and widespread. Other Central Asian countries like Turkmenistan may have the same kind of problems with forced child labor, but it is difficult to get the information and NGO activity is virtual destroyed. Most notably, groups work on Uzbekistan because Tashkent itself has made a highly-publicized commitment to abide by the ILO's conventions. That doesn't mean that the NGOs don't care about India, Pakistan or China -- indeed there are human rights groups actively campaigning against forced labor and for children’s rights in those countries.
Hashimova's least persuasive argument is that the campaign against forced labor was somehow cooked up because Western companies need to compete with the Uzbek cotton industry, and needed to find a way to put it out of business. She contradicts herself by also claiming, as the Uzbek government does, that it is reducing the share of the cotton industry in the national economy. More to the point, her argument is completely undermined these days by the high price of raw cotton on the exchanges, and the shortages that clothing and sportswear companies are already announcing that will dictate a rise in consumer prices.
Another rather stretched argument also relates to the Soviet legacy. Hashimova says because Uzbekistan was subjugated by Russia in the Soviet Union and essentially "transformed into the Russian Empire's principal cotton colony," with "substantial level of social security despite the wage levels" the present system is somehow acceptable. Yet Uzbekistan is hardly subdued by Russia now, which is among its largest customers for the cotton, and the "social security" of private farmers is a chimera – recently, even harsher laws were passed to make the state-controlled agricultural sector even more oppressive for farmers, who have to accept fixed prices and whose farms can be seized if they are viewed as producing below an assessed quota. Uzbeks since independence have hardly chosen the brutal Soviet collectivization model for their society, yet the real transition to private farming has not authentically been made by the state.
G-TIP'S WATCH LIST
What Hashimova is most concerned about, however, is the affect the US sanction of Uzbekistan through G-TIP could mean for their overall relationship. G-TIP recently released an interim assessment of the countries on the Tier 2 "Special Watch List," which included Uzbekistan, and because of continued non-compliance could be in danger of a downgrading to tier 3, which could impact assistance, says Hashimova:
The importance of the NDN to the Afghanistan war effort cannot be overstated given the constant interdiction of supplies through Pakistan by the Taliban and its Pakistani supporters in recent years. However, this fragile US-Uzbek relationship appears to be on the verge of possible collapse due to arcane and illogical actions by the State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (G-TIP).
Yet as Hashimova herself notes, the State Department is likely to issue a waiver due to the need to cooperate with Uzbekistan. And at the end of the day, G-TIP is just doing its job under US law. The use of forced child labor is not just a cultural heritage, it is a violation of US law, part of US policy about international relations in keeping with UN treaty obligations, and most importantly, incorporated into Uzbek national law and international commitments – a fact UNICEF recognizes certainly when it devises programs with the Uzbek government to mitigate child labor.
Hashimova, who is described as an independent scholar, is a graduate of the University of Essex with a masters in human rights, and listed at the Eurasia Center of the Atlantic Council. She has held positions in Amnesty International's Asia Advocacy Program and worked for UNDP in Tashkent and also for UNODC as a researcher. So she is grounded in human rights law and practice and experienced with the UN. Yet in these two articles, she has failed to state the obvious about Uzbekistan's human rights violations or even to mention the term "human rights" at all.
Instead, she echoes the rhetoric the Uzbek government has used about the US government purportedly “taking up the cause of a number of anti-Uzbekistan NGOs and possibly competing cotton exporters to vilify Uzbekistan."
Yet the revolutions in the Middle East have prompted US policy-makers to contemplate more deeply the human rights values the US professes and the stark consequences of failing to uphold them abroad in the long run. Uzbekistan stands to gain as much from the US in terms of trade and security as Washington seeks from the relationship with Tashkent – there is no need to foreclose the future of Uzbek children, depriving them of schooling and subjecting them to harsh work in a state-controlled industry that benefits only the ruling families and their associates. Most importantly, Tashkent itself now professes the letter of the labor law if not the spirit, and there is no reason why both NGOs and foreign governments cannot call Uzbekistan to account.