Last Wednesday (June 26) twelve U.S. Senators – including John McCain (R-AZ), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) – sent a letter to Uzbekistan’s President, Islam Karimov, asking for information about the health and status of three political prisoners. The letter specifies that a number of international human rights groups have identified these three individuals as prisoners of conscience, and noted “Their continued detention is inconsistent with our countries’ cooperation in many other areas and symbolic of a troubling pattern of harsh treatment for political prisoners.”
Uzbekistan’s “harsh treatment for political prisoners” and other human rights violations are well documented by both NGO and U.S. government reports. Freedom House, for instance, gives Uzbekistan the worst rating possible (a seven) in its annual Freedom in the World report. Moreover, each of the State Department’s three annual human rights related reports criticize Uzbekistan’s human rights policies. The 2011 International Religious Freedom Report downgraded Uzbekistan to a “Country of Particular Concern… for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” a status that remained unchanged in the 2012 report. Likewise, the State Department downgraded Uzbekistan to a Tier 3 country in its 2013 Trafficking in Person Report, meaning its government “does not fully comply with the minimum standards set by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) and is not making significant efforts to do so.” And lastly, the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012 lists a slew of human rights concerns in Uzbekistan, including many in its prison and judicial systems.
Despite these reports, though, the U.S. government has avoided harsh public criticism of the Uzbek government, and Eurasianet’s Murat Sadykov called the Senators’ public rebuke of the Uzbek government “unusual.” A recent Open Society Briefing Paper (PDF) argues that because the U.S. needs territorial access to Uzbekistan to ship equipment in and out of the war in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan receives far fewer public rebukes from the U.S. for its human rights record than less strategically important Former Soviet states. The report’s author, Amy McDonough, writes: “Many public statements focus on key interests the United States has at stake in its relations with [Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan], and why they are treated as such valued partners of the United States. While democracy and human rights are sometimes mentioned as part of the bilateral dialogue, they literally take a backseat, coming farther down the list of issues addressed than those that the United States deems more pressing.”
And as the administration has remained relatively silent on these issues, some members of Congress have actually pushed for additional security assistance to Uzbekistan. Meanwhile, after banning certain forms of assistance to Uzbekistan in 2003 due to its poor human rights record, Congress granted the administration the ability to temporarily waive a ban on military assistance to the country in 2011, even though State Department reports clearly indicate the human rights situation is not improving. The administration used this waiver to provide the country with Foreign Military Financing last year. (For a good summary of developments pertaining assistance to Uzbekistan, please consult this Congressional Research Service report in pdf). Lastly, it is worth noting that Uzbekistan also receives security assistance directly from the Department of Defense. The following report (pdf) shows that while Uzbekistan received no assistance from the DOD in 2008 and about $146,000 in 2009, that number shot up to over $6 million of counternarcotics assistance in 2010.
Nonetheless, recent statements by U.S. Central Command’s deputy director for logistics and engineering, Scott Anderson, may put into question the value of Uzbekistan as a transit corridor. Anderson remarked that only four percent of equipment leaving Afghanistan is going through Central Asia’s Northern Distribution Network (NDN), with analyst Josh Kucera pointing to both geographical and political reasons for this low number. Therefore, if transit through the NDN remains sparse, and given the U.S. plan to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, it will be interesting to see if there is a change in Congress’s and the Obama Administration’s willingness to challenge Uzbekistan’s poor human rights record.