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