By Ronald J. McNamara, Policy Advisor
The Helsinki Commission convened a briefing on May 13, 2008, the third anniversary of the massacre at Andijon, to hear from experts on the challenges facing the 28 million people of Uzbekistan, including the widespread use of child labor in that country’s lucrative cotton industry. Panelists addressing political, economic and human rights developments in the Central Asian nation were: Marsha Lisitsyna of Human Rights Watch, film maker and writer Shahida Tulaganova, Juliette Williams of the Environmental Justice Foundation, and Professor Eric McGlinchey of George Mason University.
For nearly two decades, Islam Karimov has ruled over Uzbekistan in a regime long-criticized for its harsh reprisals against dissidents, contempt for democratic principles and widespread corruption. Marsha Lisitsyna provided an overview of the findings of a newly released Human Rights Watch report, “Saving its Secrets” Government Repression in Andijan. She decried the fact that the Government of Uzbekistan has never accepted responsibility for its role in Andijon and has been unwilling to allow an independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding the uprising and massacre. Lisitsyna described the ongoing efforts of the Uzbek government to seek out and persecute anyone it deems to have a connection to or information about those events. While welcoming the regime’s release of a number of human rights defenders, she stressed the fact that a dozen others languish in jail.
The report, based on interviews with witnesses to Andijon and relatives in 2007 and 2008, describes the pressures on those who fled the country as well as the reality for those who have returned to Uzbekistan. Lisitsyna told of retribution aimed at family members, including depriving relatives of social benefits, constant surveillance by the security services as well as the labeling of children of refugees as “children of enemies of the state” by teachers. Returnees are generally isolated, finding it difficult to secure work, and are pressured to entice others to return. In urging the international community not to forget Andijon, Lisitsyna concluded, “If the Government of Uzbekistan is able to demonstrate — would be able to demonstrate — considerable progress on human rights for sure, we wouldn’t need the sanctions. But unfortunately, to date, this is still not the case.”
Shahida Tulaganova echoed this point, urging the international community, including the European Union and the United States, to resist consigning Andijon to the history books while those associated with the tragedy continue to face repression. She reported that nearly 30 rights activists, independent journalists and opposition figures remain jailed and are subject to various forms of abuse. Tulaganova focused on severe limitations imposed by the government on freedom of expression, including tight control of the Internet and reprisals against independent journalists. In this regard, she recalled the murder of her colleague, Alisher Saipov, a prominent investigative journalist and editor of an Uzbek-language newspaper, Siyosat, gunned down outside of his office in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Saipov was an outspoken critic of President Karimov, reporting regularly on rights abuses in Uzbekistan.
Tulaganova was critical of the European Union and the United States for not being more forceful in the aftermath of the 2007 flawed presidential elections perpetuating Karimov as president, a position he has held since 1990, making him the longest serving Soviet-era leader still in power. “The fact is that everyone is dealing with an illegitimate president and an illegitimate government,” she said. The deteriorating economy under Karimov, an economist by training and expert on state planning, is exacerbated by widespread corruption, resulting in a flood of labor migrants working outside of the country. Tulaganova voiced particular concern over the hundreds of thousands of school children forced to work under harsh conditions in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields.
Juliette Williams focused on the reliance on forced child labor in the cotton industry, reportedly generating a billion dollars annually. She detailed state control over every aspect of cotton production, from seasonal quotas imposed on farmers to daily quotas demanded of school-age children, some as young as seven years old. “Underpinning the entire industry is the systematical use of forced child labor and slave wages in order to maximize profits to the state, with little or no return for laborers or wider society,” said Williams.
In addition to the human toll, Williams described the environmental degradation stemming from the country’s cotton industry. She pointed to estimates that 60 percent of diverted water never even reaches the cotton fields, but is lost in the deteriorating Soviet-era irrigation network. Perhaps the most dramatic case involves the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest inland sea, that has been drained to just 15 percent of its former volume, largely due to mismanagement by the Soviets and their successors. Soil damage is another area of environmental concern. Based in the United Kingdom, Williams explained efforts to organize an international boycott of Uzbek cotton given the reliance on forced child labor. She concluded, “I appeal to the Helsinki Commission and to people here today to engage in a full examination of the human rights and environmental abuses connected to cotton production in Uzbekistan.”
A poignant short documentary film, White Gold, the True Cost of Cotton [http://www.ejfoundation.org/page325.html], was shown during the briefing to provide a human face to child labor in Uzbekistan. Scenes of grounded derelict ships and caravans of camels crossing the now arid seabed that once supported fertile fishing grounds provide stark images of the cost to the environment.
Professor McGlinchey pointed to several changing dynamics that could affect bilateral relations between the United States and Uzbekistan: a lessening of the importance of the Karshi-Khanabad base to operations in Afghanistan, Karimov’s concerns over his legacy, and volatility of international commodity markets. While each could provide an opening, he warned that they could also lead to retrenchment by the regime. The abrupt departure of that U.S. from the K2 base diminished Karimov’s ability to portray himself as a serious partner in the war against terrorism, McGlinchey suggested. Given regime changes in Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, he suggested that Karimov might seek to orchestrate his own succession, opening an opportunity for U.S. engagement with possible successors.
McGlinchey cited escalating food prices as another factor that could generate new pressures and popular demands, potentially further undermining the already fragile foundations of the government. He warned that a vulnerable Karimov regime may resort to even greater repression rather than reform and stressed the importance of U.S. monitoring of human rights as a lifeline to vulnerable activists. With respect to the crucial role of cotton in the Uzbek economy, McGlinchey suggested that it is an unsustainable industry in the region given the depleted water supplies. “Water is not, unfortunately, a renewable resource in Central Asia. The Aral Sea is almost tapped out, and now the glacier stores are going to be tapped out, and in the long run something else besides cotton has to be promoted,” said McGlinchey.