On July 13, 2004, the U.S. Department of State announced it could not certify Uzbekistan for continued U.S. assistance, citing Tashkent’s failure to make sufficient progress on implementing human rights commitments. The decision had been awaited by human rights groups – most of which favored de-certification – and analysts who argued that Washington had a greater stake in continuing assistance to a strategic ally in the war on terrorism.
United States Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) applauded the State Department’s decision: “Given Tashkent’s record, it would have been impossible to certify Uzbekistan. I regret that President Karimov did not choose to do what would have been needed to make certification possible.”
Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) agreed, stressing that the decision did not mean that Washington was walking away from Uzbekistan, but would keep working with Tashkent to improve its human rights observance. “If we had just routinely gone forward with the process that allowed for certification when minimal standards of progress have not been made, the United States would have done a disservice to Uzbekistan and to its people,” Cardin said. “I think Secretary Powell has fulfilled an important obligation to the people of Uzbekistan as well as to the people of the United States.”
The Department’s decision followed a June 24 Helsinki Commission hearing which examined in detail the pros and cons of both options on certification. Representing the State Department were Lorne W. Craner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, and Lynn Pascoe, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State on the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. Secretary Craner also serves as an Executive Branch Member of the Helsinki Commission. Uzbekistan’s Ambassador Abdulaziz Komilov presented Tashkent’s point of view.
Chairman Smith noted the timeliness of the hearing given the Department’s then-forthcoming decision on certification. He acknowledged Uzbekistan’s cooperation in anti-terrorist activities and pro-U.S. foreign policy. But, Smith was critical of President Islam Karimov for not allowing opposition political parties and keeping print and electronic media under government control. The Uzbek Government has been especially harsh in its treatment of independent Muslims: “There are over 5,000 people in prison for their religious or political beliefs,” and torture in prison, according to a United Nations report, is “systemic.” Smith also noted that Tashkent’s efforts to combat human trafficking won a status upgrade from Tier III to Tier II in the State Department’s recently released Trafficking in Persons Report, but that Uzbekistan still failed to meet TIP minimum standards.
In his opening statement, Commissioner Cardin acknowledged that the decision on certification would be difficult, balancing the need to enforce previously set standards for change without restricting needed funds or driving Uzbekistan into the arms of Russia. Cardin added, “We don’t expect miracles overnight, but we do expect constant and consistent progress.”
Helsinki Commission Member Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA) applauded progress warranting the TIP status upgrade. He also noted the difficult challenges with countries such as Uzbekistan. “It is vital as we deepen our relationships with various nations around the world, particularly in relation to the war against terrorism, that we do not ignore human rights violations.” Helsinki Commission Member Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-NC), the newest CSCE member, also attended the hearing.
Secretary Craner pointed to “some important gains” in Uzbekistan’s observance of human rights. For example, in May Tashkent invited an independent, international forensic science team affiliated with Freedom House to investigate a suspicious prison death which was ultimately ruled a suicide.
Yet, Craner stressed certain problems:
- While presidential amnesties had reduced the number of political prisoners, many were rearrested, and detentions continue.
- Censorship was officially abolished, but media law amendments have increased the amount of self-censorship.
- Progress in electoral reform has been equally disappointing.
In short, Craner said, “The Government of Uzbekistan has chosen not to institute and implement real political reforms, reforms that are badly needed in order to ensure long-term stability and security.”
Ambassador Pascoe focused more on the strategic and security benefits of close U.S.-Uzbek cooperation in recent years, emphasizing the Uzbek contribution to the U.S.-led war against terrorism. He also pointed to Tashkent’s need to “confront the danger of extremist elements.” Pascoe saw some gains in human rights, civil rights, and economic reform in Uzbekistan. The Ministry of Internal Affairs, for instance, has initiated a prison monitoring program by non-governmental organizations and allowed the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture to visit the country. Pascoe expressed concern that an aid cutoff would hurt such useful programs as ethical conduct training for Uzbek police. He regretted the lack of a security waiver in the legislation on certification, “which would allow [the State Department] to have a more nuanced approach to encourage compliance.”
For his part, Ambassador Komilov objected outright to the hearing’s subtitle “Stifled Democracy, Human Rights in Decline.” To support his position, he cited the halving of the number of prisoners since 2000, and a tenfold increase of registered religious organizations since 1990. The ambassador acknowledged that reform is still needed in the law enforcement community, but stressed that the United States and Uzbekistan share a similar problem with regard to terrorism and “hold similar views regarding the question of what should be done.” Komilov emphatically expressed the Uzbek Government’s wish to democratize and to “emulate [the U.S.’s] great democratic traditions.”
The last panel, over which Commissioner Cardin presided, showcased four views on the certification issue, as well as overall U.S. policy toward Uzbekistan. In the pro-certification camp were Dr. Martha Olcott, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Dr. Frederick Starr, director of the Central Asia Caucasus Institute at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.
Dr. Olcott contended that an aid cutoff “would have a number of very negative effects.” She maintained that a cutoff would stymie the slow but real improvement in Uzbekistan’s human rights situation, arguing that de-certification “would strand reformers in Uzbekistan.” Olcott also worried that cutting off aid would embolden those in Uzbekistan opposed to U.S. involvement in the region as well as Islamic militants. A better approach, she argued, would be to mitigate the regime’s repressiveness via police reform and make radical ideals appear less forbidden and perhaps less appealing.
Dr. Starr, on the other hand, questioned the data collected by Uzbek and international human rights groups, pointing to their frequent use of “informed” or “anonymous” sources. He voiced opposition to registering the extremist Islamic organization Hizb-ut Tahrir, which he described as militantly anti-Semitic and favoring the expulsion of all non-Muslims from Central Asia. Starr claimed that Uzbekistan’s five government-created parties are beginning to behave like legitimate political parties. In general, he painted a far more favorable picture of Uzbekistan’s progress, considering how little time has passed since independence.
On the other side of the issue was Veronika Szente Goldston, Human Rights Watch’s Advocacy Director for Europe and Central Asia. She pointed out that credible evidence of torture and mistreatment of prisoners continues despite reform promises from the Uzbek Government. Moreover, six months before impending elections, no “genuine opposition political party has been allowed to register, and [opposition] members face harassment and criminal prosecution.” She concluded that conditions for certification had not been met and to not de-certify would “rob the law of its meaning.”
Dr. Polat, the leader of the unregistered Birlik opposition party, was highly critical of Uzbekistan’s human rights record. He cited the police killing of several Birlik members between 1992 and 2001 and more recent “groundless” arrests of political party members. Nevertheless, Polat argued that rather than de-certify Uzbekistan it would be more productive to give even more aid to government programs with the condition that reform continue and opposition parties be allowed to register.
In closing, Commissioner Cardin asked the panelists what near-term change they would most like to see in Uzbekistan. Responses included public condemnation of torture, the release of human rights activists, registration of opposition parties, the adoption of a habeas corpus law, and the establishment by the United States of a training academy for police and administrators. Cardin concluded the hearing by assuring the panelists and audience that the Helsinki Commission and Congress will continue to closely follow developments in Uzbekistan.
All these perspectives must have been considered by the State Department but ultimately Secretary Colin Powell did not recertify Uzbekistan for U.S. assistance. Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, “Uzbekistan has made some encouraging progress over the past year with respect to human rights. We are, however, disappointed by lack of progress on democratic reform and restrictions put on U.S. assistance partners on the ground. On balance, therefore, the Secretary has decided that, based on Uzbekistan’s overall record of reform, he cannot make the determination [to certify]. However, this decision does not mean that either our interests in the region or our desire for continued cooperation with Uzbekistan has changed. We want to continue to work with Uzbekistan to pursue our common goals and to implement the standards and ideals in the Strategic Partnership Framework.”
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.