When Latvia took over the presidency of the European Union in January it included becoming more engaged in Central Asia among its list of priorities. The EU’s overarching Central Asia strategy was last laid out in detail in 2007 and labeled a “strategy for a new partnership.” The brochure was updated in 2009.
RFE/RL reports that soon the EU’s Central Asia strategy will be updated again, presumably at a June 22 meeting of foreign minister in Luxembourg.
According to RFE/RL, the new strategy will put more focus on “serious challenges to human rights” in the region.
The 2007 strategy identified “security and stability” as the EU’s strategic interests in the region. The document did not ignore human rights–placing emphasis on dialogues–but skipped over topics such as torture. Focus was placed on rule of law, combating corruption, and stemming the drug trade flowing out of Afghanistan.
The new strategy, which RFE/RL reviewed, is “short on concrete actions on human rights” but “says EU priorities in Central Asia include promotion of respect for the freedoms of assembly, association, expression, and religion or belief, as well as encouraging the rights of women, children, and minorities.” The new strategy also contains a pledge to eradicate torture.
Europe and the United States have both tried to pursue deeper relationships with the region, but are often seen as clumsy in trying to balance economic and security interests with human rights concerns. Central Asia is politically, economically, and geographically closer to Russia and China–which offer economic and security engagement without strings. The importance of Russia and China cannot be downplayed, but they apparently aren’t mentioned by name in the new EU strategy.
Speaking at an event in Washington focused on the Latvian EU presidency and Europe’s Central Asia relations earlier this year, Richard Hoagland, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, said: “As someone who has been involved in U.S. Central Asian policy for more than a decade, let me say that some might see our policy as a little too aspirational and a little too unfocused, but I would argue that the concept is right.”
Not all are convinced the concepts behind western strategies toward Central Asia are right or effective. For example, in mid-May the Cooperation Council between the EU and Uzbekistan held its twelfth meeting. The press release touted progress made between Uzbekistan and the International Labor Organization (ILO) in the area of child labor. The ILO says fewer children were forced to labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields in 2014, the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights noted that “In 2014 we observed an increased forced labor burden on adults, apparently to compensate for reduced numbers of children forced to pick cotton.” They continue on to say that:
“People were forced or coerced to pick cotton under threat of penalty such as loss of social benefits payments, loss of employment, loss of utilities and other public services, social exclusion, fines, administrative harassment, and criminal prosecution.”
Elena Urlaeva, head of the Uzbek Human Rights Defenders’ Alliance, who was detained and abused by Uzbek police on May 31 when she was caught photographing forced labor, was carrying an information sheet on the ILO conventions.
The new EU Central Asia strategy will reportedly also place greater emphasis on human rights defenders, saying they “deserve special attention and EU support.” As the strategy reportedly lacks concrete steps, it is unlikely to placate those who would like to see a little less talk, and a little more action.