Uzbekistan is nothing if not ambitious. In a move that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, the government is lobbying to be elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the top U.N. human rights body, and boasting about its human rights record in the process.
The Human Rights Council’s founding resolution says it expects members to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” and to cooperate fully with the council.
That’s a tall order for Uzbekistan, where severe human rights violations remain commonplace. Only four years have passed since the death of Islam Karimov, the country’s brutally authoritarian leader for 25 years.
Yet the bid to join the council for a three-year term, to be decided in an October 13 vote in the U.N. General Assembly, fits with the reform agenda set by Karimov’s successor, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. He believes in transforming the country’s outdated economy, ending its international isolation, and boosting its role in global affairs. In this spirit, the government has pledged to the council that it sees itself as “well placed to make an important contribution to upholding human rights and values of the U.N. on [a] regional and global level.”
Uzbekistan is in the Asia-Pacific group of countries competing for four seats on the council. Other candidates in the group are China, Saudi Arabia, Nepal, and Pakistan.
The human rights improvements since Mirziyoyev took power in 2016, including the release of dozens of political prisoners and steps to end the use of forced labor, have been largely welcomed by Tashkent’s partners and human rights groups.
Yet Tashkent’s bid underlines the urgent need for a reality check on Uzbekistan’s actual progress on human rights. Severe violations such as torture and heavy restrictions on freedom of speech, assembly, and religion are still in place in Uzbekistan. It remains a country that lacks political pluralism and lives under the shadow of an overbearing security apparatus.
Nations taking part in the General Assembly vote should do so with their eyes wide open. They should also urge Tashkent to deliver on previous promises on human rights and ask for deliverable commitments in its plans for its council term.
It’s clear what needs to be done. Two leading U.N. expert committees have recently issued reports pointing to deep-seated human rights problems in Uzbekistan. In November 2019 the U.N. Committee Against Torture identified “widespread, routine torture and ill-treatment” in detention sites. It said the steps taken to curb torture – highlighted as progress by Tashkent in its pledges to the Human Rights Council – were clearly insufficient.
And the U.N. Human Rights Committee in April said it was concerned not only about torture but also about “restrictions on freedom of conscience and religious belief, freedom of expression, freedom of association and peaceful assembly.”
Meanwhile a useful civil society scorecard on whether Uzbekistan reaches key benchmarks for council membership shows significant room for improvement. A list of 13 U.N. experts (known as “special procedures”) have long been waiting to be invited to visit and report on the country (the checklist uses five or fewer requests awaiting response as its benchmark). Tashkent has also not spoken out against attacks on civil society within Uzbekistan, nor is it working fully with international bodies to protect rights, according to the checklist.
Uzbekistan could take some immediate steps to show its commitment. As recommended by the U.N. anti-torture experts, Tashkent should investigate the claims by many of the political prisoners who have been released that they were tortured in detention. The government should support their rehabilitation, too.
Uzbekistan has made significant progress in reducing the numbers of people forced annually to pick cotton, the national crop, but the problem has not been eliminated. Over 100,00 people were forced to work in the 2019 harvest. In the harvest starting this month the government should ensure that there are independent recruitment channels so people can truly choose whether to work. Independent organizations and trade unions should be allowed to monitor the harvest.
Uzbekistan should use an interim report this year to the Human Rights Council’s peer review process (the “Universal Periodic Review”) to urgently address an issue regularly raised by other governments but rejected by Tashkent – the decriminalization of consensual sexual relations between men. Uzbekistan is one of only two former Soviet states that criminalize consensual sexual relations between men (Turkmenistan is the other). It should be keen to get off that list.
A consultation last year, involving governments, national human rights bodies and human rights groups, on how to improve the way the Human Rights Council works concluded, among other things that, governments often see membership of the Council as a reward — sometimes even as a “sign of international approval of poor human rights practices at home.” The experts suggested that membership should instead be seen as a test of the government’s commitment to uphold high standards both at home and abroad.
As Uzbekistan enters its fifth year under Mirziyoyev, it is taking on a major test by seeking membership of the Human Rights Council. Despite the important changes in recent years, its biggest human rights challenges still lie ahead.
Hugh Williamson is director, Europe & Central Asia, at Human Rights Watch. Follow Hugh on Twitter @hughawilliamson