15th Jun 2021

Uzbekistan jails reporter in EU sanctions 'test'

  • Samarkand in Uzbekistan - how should the EU deal with an intransigent dictatorship? (Photo: Wikipedia)

Uzbekistan has jailed a prominent journalist on the eve of an EU decision on sanctions, with Human Rights Watch (HRW) saying that EU states will undermine foreign policy credibility if they let Tashkent off the hook.

Solizhon Abdurakhmanov - a reporter who wrote for the New York Times and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty - received a 10-year sentence on marijuana and opium-dealing charges on Friday (10 October), two days before EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday debate scrapping a visa-ban list for the Central Asian country.

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"This [the Abdurakhmanov sentence] is just another example of the Uzbek government mocking the EU's rights demands," HRW campaigner Veronika Szente Goldston told EUobserver.

Ms Szente Goldston believes that Uzbekistan should act as a test-case for EU sanctions policy because of the country's "clear-cut" failure to meet the criteria for dropping restrictions as spelled out in the EU's own legal acts.

"We are not talking here about an ideological standard for EU foreign policy, but simply about consistency, about staying true to one's own reform demands and not backtracking in the face of intransigence," she said.

"[Dropping the visa ban] would amount to a choice for political expediency at the expense of human rights."

The latest EU "common position" on Uzbekistan from April 2008 refers to Tashkent's "obstruction of an independent enquiry" into the 2005 Andijan massacre and the need to take steps to "improve the human rights situation" - neither of which, HRW argues, have been met.

EU sanctions policy is governed by a 2004 foreign ministers' statement, Principles on the use of restrictive measures.

The document spells out that sanctions should be used to promote "international security" and "respect for human rights, democracy, the rule of law and good governance" in line with article 11 of the EU treaty.

Beyond Uzbekistan, the EU foreign ministers meeting on Monday will debate relaxing a visa ban on Belarus while maintaining tight travel restrictions on Zimbabwe.

The EU also operates visa-ban lists on officials or former officials from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote D'Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Iran, Syria, Burma, North Korea, Serbia and the breakaway Moldova region of Transdniestria. A lighter arms trade embargo is in force on China, Iraq, Lebanon and Somalia.

The pragmatist camp

Looking at past sanctions voting in the EU council, Germany, Spain and France have generally taken a pragmatic approach, arguing that restrictions don't work in promoting reform, while following their own economic interests.

Germany - which is leading the push to drop the Uzbekistan list - has around 50 companies active in the country, with economy minister Michael Glos leading a delegation of over 100 German business leaders to Tashkent in February. France - which has over €17 billion a year in trade with China - has led opposition to the symbolic arms ban.

"Generally we don't believe in sanctions, we believe in dialogue and engagement," a French presidency spokeswoman told EUobserver. "We've already had those sanctions on Uzbekistan for years and they did not change much."

The former Communist EU countries also tend to be pragmatists, taking an ideological line in remote cases such as Cuba - where the Czech republic fought and lost against Spain over relaxing restrictions earlier this year - while being more concerned about limiting Russian power and expanding their own economic interests closer to home.

Poland and Latvia are happy to let the Uzbekistan visa ban lapse, with the Latvian president, Vladis Zatlers, also taking business people to Uzbekistan in October. And Poland is leading the drive to relax Belarus sanctions in the hope of creating a friendly buffer state against Russia.

Speaking theoretically about EU sanctions policy, a Polish diplomat explained that dropping restrictions risks legitimising an undesirable regime. "But there is also a risk on the other side. There could always be a debate - if we kept the sanctions did we lose a chance for a [diplomatic] breakthrough?"

Tactics, not values

The Nordic countries, the UK and the Netherlands have the strongest record on supporting the use of sanctions to further human rights goals. But the UK and some of the Nordic states also see sanctions as tactical games with individual governments rather than a simple, values-led campaign.

"Does that mean that Zimbabwe is nastier than Belarus [if the EU upholds the visa ban on the African state]?" a British diplomat asked. "It's comparing apples and pears. It's not a perfect system in terms of public perception, where you can always make the case that one country is worse than another. But sanctions are tools for specific circumstances."

"No one would say Uzbekistan is clearly on the right path. But in the end, sanctions are part of tactics as well. What are the instruments that would give us the maximum leverage?" a senior diplomat from one of the Nordic countries said.

He added that his foreign ministry has "been less convinced [than others] of lifting our sanctions policy [on Tashkent] without evidence that things may improve," however. The EU will get "nothing clear" from Uzbekistan in return, the contact said.

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