Monday

26th Sep 2022

Opinion

Uzbekistan not even close to meriting EU's trade scheme

  • Uzbekistan's president Shavkat Mirziyoyev, (right, with Russian president Vladimir Putin) has taken 'baby steps' in improving the country's human rights record, since the death of brutal dictator Islam Karimov in 2016 (Photo: Wikimedia)

Imagine a man has for years been nasty to his family. One day he starts being a little bit nicer to them and promises to get much better in future. Is this the time to give him a citizenship award for his slight change in behaviour?

That's essentially the question the European Union is facing over its relations with Uzbekistan. Some in Brussels think such a prize is already due, despite the fact that the central Asian country over decades has had one of the world's worst human rights records.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

The EU's Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) defines the bloc's trade relations and tariff cuts for low and lower-middle income countries, including Uzbekistan.

It also opens the door for additional incentives, dubbed GSP+, that grants countries even greater access to EU markets. But EU law is clear: GSP+ benefits are conditional on the ratification and implementation of 27 international human rights, labour, and environmental treaties.

Uzbekistan applied for GSP+ in June this year, but, despite some improvements, the country still falls woefully short of these requirements.

Since the death of the brutal authoritarian leader Islam Karimov in 2016, the country has taken some modest steps to improve its human rights record.

Under president Shavkat Mirziyoyev dozens of political prisoners have been released, independent media activity has increased, and action was taken to limit forced labor in the country's cotton fields.

'Baby steps'

These are welcome changes, for sure, but they are baby steps. The government's pledges for reforms are mostly unfinished business.

Many people remain in prison on bogus charges, and media continue to self-censor out of fear.

Laws on civil society and demonstrations fall short of international standards. More worryingly, criminal provisions widely used to lock up thousands of critics under Karimov, including broad charges of extremism and treason, are still on the books.

Defamation and insult remain criminalised.

Despite a 2018 decree that reduced the responsibilities of Uzbekistan's security services, they retain enormous power and continue to use these abusive provisions.

Earlier this year, a former Uzbek diplomat, Kadyr Yusupov, and a former journalist of a defence ministry newspaper, Vladimir Kaloshin, were convicted on treason charges to lengthy prison sentences following closed trials marred by procedural violations and credible reports of torture while in detention.

In responding to Uzbekistan's GSP+ bid, the EU commission is now tasked to check whether there are serious failures in the country's effective implementation of core human rights treaties. Uzbekistan has ratified all the conventions required to join the programme.

But in-depth assessments by UN expert bodies confirm that key provisions remain unmet.

UN unimpressed

In April this year, the UN Human Rights Committee said it was concerned by Uzbekistan's repeated failure to implement its recommendations and continued restrictions on peaceful assembly and freedom of association.

It urged the government to bring its torture definition and its counter-extremism law in line with its international obligations.

In 2019, the UN Committee Against Torture raised concerns over "widespread, routine torture and ill-treatment" in detention sites, and the lack of compliance with fundamental legal safeguards during arrest and detention.

The EU Commission should give due weight to these independent, international assessments and acknowledge that, despite some recent progresses against a very low baseline, there are still serious failures in Uzbekistan's compliance with the treaties listed in the GSP regulation.

Brussels should clearly identify and publicly announce time-bound benchmarks that Uzbekistan should meet to address major deficiencies in its compliance record.

They should include releasing all those convicted on politically-motivated charges; fulfilling pledges to rid the country's criminal code of abusive provisions; and bringing its definition of torture, its NGO code, and its law on peaceful assemblies in line with international standards.

In addition, Uzbekistan should be required to fully abolish the practice of all forced labor in its cotton fields.

If it decides to fast-track Uzbekistan's access to GSP+ and override its own criteria, the EU should not pretend that the routine, biennial EU reporting on GSP+ would be enough to address Tashkent's continued failures to meet its rights obligations.

At the very least, the commission should set up a dedicated monitoring process, with the involvement of local and international civil society groups, to ensure greater transparency on benchmarks and recommendations, as well as to follow-up on the commitments of the Uzbek government to remedy failures identified.

Applying for the EU's GSP+ is a clear demonstration of president Mirziyoyev's ambition to reform the country's economic structures to boost growth and trade ties.

The EU should support this process in a way that benefits everyone in Uzbekistan by using its leverage to ensure Tashkent upholds the international human rights standards it has signed up to.

A lot of hard work remains to be done for Uzbekistan to deserve Brussels' reward.

Author bio

Hugh Williamson is director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Slick PR and the real story in Uzbekistan

London PR firms are working for the daughter of Uzbek dictator Karimov after she fell from grace, but what about EU support for the silent victims of his regime?

Uzbek massacre hangs over Barroso-Karimov meeting

A memorandum on energy is to dominate a meeting in Brussels between European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Uzbek chief Islam Karimov, responsible for massacring 1,500 of his own people just six years ago.

Could the central Asian 'stan' states turn away from Moscow?

The former Soviet states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan have retained close ties with Russia since 1989. Yet this consensus may be shifting. At the UN, none of them supported Russia in the resolution condemning the Ukraine invasion.

EU pushes WTO reform and Paris agenda in new trade plan

The bloc's new trade strategy proposes making respect for the 2015 Paris Agreement an "essential element" of future trade agreements. Reform of the World Trade Organization is also a priority for the coming decade.

Column

How to respond, if Moscow now offers peace talks

It is difficult to see how Vladimir Putin can survive more major setbacks or outright defeat. Should this happen, Russia will find itself in a major political crisis. But offering him negotiations now would help him, by easing domestic pressure.

News in Brief

  1. Confirmed: EU drops call for 'independent' Abu Akleh probe
  2. EU plan to stop firework abuse in football stadiums
  3. More Russians now crossing Finnish land border
  4. Report: EU to propose €584bn energy grid upgrade plan
  5. Morocco snubs Left MEPs probing asylum-seeker deaths
  6. EU urges calm after Putin's nuclear threat
  7. Council of Europe rejects Ukraine 'at gunpoint' referendums
  8. Lithuania raises army alert level after Russia's military call-up

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDA - Soft Drinks EuropeCall for EU action – SMEs in the beverage industry call for fairer access to recycled material
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic prime ministers: “We will deepen co-operation on defence”
  3. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBConstruction workers can check wages and working conditions in 36 countries
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Canadian ministers join forces to combat harmful content online
  5. European Centre for Press and Media FreedomEuropean Anti-SLAPP Conference 2022
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers write to EU about new food labelling

Latest News

  1. Europe's far-right celebrates Meloni victory
  2. EU mulls more police powers for west Africa missions
  3. EU fight on illegal fishing must move from paper to online
  4. EU adding Bahamas to tax-haven blacklist
  5. Czech presidency proposes fossil-fuel tax compromise
  6. Ukraine's cyber resistance is impressive - but hard to replicate
  7. 'Grazie Italia': Far-right wins power in Rome
  8. How the EU is failing to help the hippo

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us