An EU Central Asia strategy with teeth (and heart)
I cannot help but wonder what Azimjon Askarov would say in reaction to this week's EU foreign ministers' statement "welcom[ing] the progress" in implementing the European Union's strategy for Central Asia.
My guess is that Askarov, a 62-year old human rights defender serving a life sentence in Kyrgyzstan following a patently unfair trial tainted by credible allegations of torture, would ask what progress EU ministers had in mind.
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The fifth anniversary of the EU's Central Asia strategy, the occasion for the ministerial statement, is an opportune moment to reflect on what has been achieved.
EU ministers do not seem to have much by way of supporting evidence, beyond developing a "diplomatic presence in the region while the number of high level visits has been increasing."
But what is the point of a presence and increased dialogue if they are not used to achieve concrete results?
Having repeatedly stressed the importance of human rights in the EU’s relationship with the governments of Central Asia - which all have distinctly poor human rights records and resist meaningful reform - EU ministers could have done far better by openly acknowledging continuing concerns and even more important, urging concrete improvements.
To be sure, affecting positive change in Central Asia is not easy, and rights promotion is not the only objective the EU is pursuing with these countries.
Important strategic interests include access to energy supplies and raw materials, and security issues, especially in the context of Afghanistan, Central Asia's neighbor - all of which the foreign ministers underlined in yesterday's statement.
But these interests should not be an excuse to downplay human rights abuses.
As some European leaders have already acknowledged, among the key lessons from EU engagement with the 'Arab Spring' countries is that viewing such strategic interests and human rights protection as mutually exclusive goals was a serious mistake, recognising them instead as mutually reinforcing, going hand-in-hand.
But this lesson does not yet seem to have sunk in when it comes to Central Asia.
Senior EU officials continue to refer to what they term a "delicate balancing act" of "staying true to our values and principles," while keeping the Central Asian governments "engaged," lest pursuing human rights becomes an obstacle to advancing other interests.
For Askarov, and for the countless others wrongfully imprisoned in the five Central Asian countries, this approach has meant that public statements by the EU on their cases have become increasingly rare.
In fact, in the past twelve months the EU does not appear to have issued a single public statement urging the release of wrongfully imprisoned rights activists in these countries.
The Central Asia Strategy's promise to make human rights a "key area" for cooperation has amounted to little more than the so-called "structured human rights dialogues" - annual, senior-level, isolated talks with each Central Asian country, with unclear objectives and outcomes and with no bearing on the overall EU relationship with these countries.
It appears EU ministers are not entirely oblivious to the problem, promising to "make the bilateral human rights dialogues more results-orientated."
But it is precisely the relegation of human rights to the dialogues, coupled with a failure to raise human rights concerns in other, more weighty, settings, that has weakened the EU’s voice on human rights.
Here’s what is needed:
First, the External Action Service and member states should overcome their reticence toward benchmarking, and clearly articulate the specific reform steps the EU seeks in each country.
In the case of Uzbekistan, such steps have already been formulated by EU foreign ministers, in the context of the sanctions process, most recently in October 2010, and in the case of Turkmenistan, by the European Parliament, in 2008, and again in 2009.
Neither set of reform demands is being enforced, however.
Next, ensure sustained and active policy follow-up, especially at the highest level and in member states' bilateral relations, to secure compliance with the benchmarks.
Human rights concerns should be raised at every opportunity, including publicly, to leave no doubt about the central importance of concrete improvements to a successful relationship.
And EU leaders need to muster the political will to impose policy consequences if reform expectations are not met.
In the cases of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, improvements should be conditions for enhanced relations. Regarding Uzbekistan, EU member states should set a clear timeline for the government to heed, once and for all, the EU's human rights criteria or face concrete consequences, including renewed restrictions on its relationship.
The European Parliament set a rare, positive example last December, rejecting a reduction of EU textile tariffs until Uzbekistan grants access to the International Labour Organisation to monitor the cotton harvest and takes concrete steps to end forced child labor.
According to EU ministers, "the Strategy has proven itself and remains valid."
But for this assertion to have any meaning for Askarov, and the countless other human rights defenders, journalists, civil society and other activists languishing in prisons throughout Central Asia, a more radical rethink is urgently needed.
The writer is the Europe and Central Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch