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3rd Mar 2024

EU decision on Uzbekistan appalls human rights groups

  • Uzbek children: the cotton harvest is symbolic of the country's lack of respect for human rights (Photo: zongo69)

EU member states have opted to drop an arms embargo against Uzbekistan in a move seen as dishonest and depressing by human rights campaigners.

EU diplomats meeting in Brussels on Tuesday (20 October) adopted the decision which is to be rubber-stamped without discussion by foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg on Monday.

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"With a view to encouraging the Uzbek authorities to take further substantive steps to improve the rule of law and human rights situation on the ground and taking into consideration their commitments, the Council decides not to renew the remaining restrictive measures set out in the Council Common Position [of 2008]," the ministers' draft statement says.

The statement is to "welcome" certain "positive steps taken over the past year" by way of justification, listing among other points Uzbekistan's participation in EU dialogues on human rights and rule of law, releases of selected human rights defenders, introduction of habeas corpus and ratification of anti-child labour conventions.

Under EU procedure, the arms embargo was due to expire in November unless renewed by a consensus of all 27 states.

But Germany signaled early on in discussions that it would not agree to a renewal, saying the sanctions have done their job over the past four years by motivating Uzbekistan to open talks on reform.

The arms embargo was imposed in 2005 in response to a massacre which saw jeep-mounted Uzbek soldiers fire high-calibre machine guns into a crowd of civilians in the market town of Andijan, killing at least 187 people.

Uzbekistan has rejected EU demands to hold an independent enquiry into the events and Uzbek-EU human rights talks have been described as hollow and perfunctory by EU diplomats who took part.

Human rights campaigners say repression has worsened over the past year. Twelve high-profile political prisoners remain behind bars. There has been at least one death in custody and numerous reports of torture. Children are still forced to pick cotton, which is bought by European firms.

"These isolated 'positive steps' [as mentioned in the EU statement] can be little more than public relations designed to alleviate a sanctions regime which has irked the Uzbek government more than it would like to admit," Jacqueline Hale from the Open Society Institute said.

"That they [EU countries] aren't even willing to give an honest assessment of the human rights situation is scandalous," Human Rights Watch's Veronika Szente Goldston added. "I feel depressed."

Germany is bearing the brunt of criticism for putting national interest ahead of EU values.

With one of the largest embassies in Tashkent, an air base in Termez in the south of the country which supplies German troops in Afghanistan and around 50 German companies active in the country, Berlin has taken the lead in framing EU policy on Uzbekistan in recent years.

The vice-president of think-tank the International Crisis Group, Alain Deletroz, highlighted the ironies of Germany's approach in a comment for German magazine Die Zeit on 20 October.

"Although the Germans operate a so-called peace mission in Afghanistan, they supply their troops from a country where people can be arrested, tortured and killed for their political convictions. While the Germans build schools and invest in education in Afghanistan, on the Uzbek side over 2 million school children from the age of nine upwards are forced to work on cotton plantations every autumn," he said.

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