Uzbekistan is undertaking a significant reform effort with President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s leadership. Very soon, Uzbekistan will have a unique opportunity to make lasting legal reforms on freedom of religion or belief. Hopefully, the country will not miss this opportunity to chart a new course and break conclusively from its authoritarian past.
While serving in a special envoy role at the U.S. State Department on religious minorities in the Middle East and South and Central Asia, I made several trips to the region to encourage reforms to open more space for freedom of religion or belief. Uzbekistan, the linchpin to Central Asia, was central to those efforts. The country has come a long way since the death of Islam Karimov. Working at a breakneck pace, the Mirziyoyev government ushered in a range of reforms, including on religious freedom.
The Uzbek government welcomed advice from the United States on reform, and we built a productive partnership. The government was especially interested in being removed from the State Department’s “Country of Particular Concern” list for severe religious freedom violators. From that dialogue, the government invited the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief to make a country visit in 2017, the first special mandate holder to visit in over a decade. Dr. Ahmed Shaheed issued an exhaustive report outlining 12 areas needing reform.
In a move unprecedented in my 20 years of work in this field, the Uzbek parliament passed a resolution committing to a roadmap of reforms based on Shaheed’s recommendations. In addition to promises, we observed an end to police raids on unregistered churches and the registration of new religious groups. In recognition of these steps, in 2018, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo removed Uzbekistan from the “Country of Particular Concern” list and moved it to the Special Watch List, shifting the country from the black list of worst violators to the grey list of countries closely monitored by the United States.
From my visits to Tashkent and multiple meetings in Washington, it is clear these reforms are at Mirziyoyev’s behest. And they continue. Recent actions now allow children to attend mosques with their parents and the government released some prisoners jailed for “religious” crimes. These are very welcomed actions.
The last hurdle is legal reform. A draft religion law is before the parliament, soon to be passed into law. They have sought international assistance, including holding events in Uzbekistan with the OSCE mission. But to ensure an end to abuses, Uzbekistan’s legal system should reorient away from a Soviet approach toward a Western, rights-based framework.
Toward this goal, Uzbekistan wisely submitted the draft religion law to the OSCE and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission for technical assessment. The overall grade was mixed. On the positive side, the critique notes the draft law “brings some improvements,” such as lowering the numerical requirement for registration of religious organizations and the “removal of the ban to wear religious attire in public.” The authors called these steps “commendable.”
At the same time, the reviewers state, “the Draft Law also maintains major restrictions and suffers from deficiencies that are incompatible with international human rights standards.” These include “bans of unregistered religious or belief activities and communities,” registration requirements still deemed “stringent and burdensome,” limits on religious education and the “import and distribution of religious materials,” and the complete ban on missionary work and proselytism. While the penalties are less severe, the grounds for dissolving a religious group are “vague and broad, and give too wide a discretion to public authorities, without providing an effective remedy.”
Overall, the reviewers conclude that the draft law “should be substantially revised in order to ensure its full compliance with international human rights standards and OSCE human dimension commitments.” While the prognosis is unfavorable, there is still time to make amendments. Uzbek officials should accept this friendly advice and address the legal shortcomings. Doing so, along with maintaining previous positive steps, could result in Uzbekistan’s removal from the State Department’s Special Watch List.
I recently heard Akmal Saidov, the director of Uzbekistan’s National Human Rights Centre, highlight the country’s reforms at Brigham Young University’s International Law and Religion Symposium. He was a regular interlocutor of mine and is deeply involved in the reform efforts. Saidov spoke about the importance of the state protecting the rights of believers to practice their faith and the rights of individuals not to believe. However, he also shared his concerns about youth radicalization and Afghanistan’s violent ideologies. Saidov said, “We must look at our area [Central Asia] differently,” considering historical differences. The government must consider concerns about religious freedom alongside national security, and it “cannot be kept in isolation from overlapping topics that bring a lot of concern.”
Saidov’s concerns are legitimate. Uzbekistan’s neighbors to the south are rife with violent ideologies and terrorism. However, the religion law is not the vehicle to address these issues. The reforms recommended by the OSCE and Venice Commission will help Uzbeks abide by the law. For instance, burdensome registration schemes only penalize groups wanting to operate legally and above ground. Neither the Islamic State nor the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is going to apply for registration, no matter how low the barrier.
Moreover, concerns about missionary activity and proselytization disrupting society are overstated. Uzbekistan’s multiethnic and multireligious culture is an example of harmony and stability to the world. While religious conversions may cause friction at the family level, trying to block new ideas in our interconnected world is like trying to stop the wind. Legal prohibitions will only result in human rights violations and sully reform efforts.
Uzbekistan has a real opportunity to cement its significant gains, turn away from its authoritarian past, and reclaim its place as a Central Asian leader. But if Uzbekistan misses this last reform opportunity and passes a flawed religion law, life will remain difficult for non-threatening religious groups while any security gains will be a mirage. Mirziyoyev and his government would be wise to accept all the OSCE/Venice Commission recommendations.
Knox Thames served as the U.S. State Department Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in both the Obama and Trump administrations. He is currently a senior fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement, thanks to a grant from the Templeton Religion Trust. The views expressed are his own.