The U.S. State Department’s decision to remove Uzbekistan from the Special Watch List for governments that engage or tolerate “severe violations of religious freedom” is a major achievement for Uzbekistan. Particularly significant in the context of the announcement was the State Department’s recommendation that other nations look to the “courageous reforms” of Uzbekistan and Sudan (which was also taken off the Special Watch List) as models to emulate. Such a high assessment undoubtedly testifies to the considerable progress achieved by Tashkent, but at the same time runs counter to the position of a number of human rights organizations.
Over the past two decades since gaining independence, Uzbekistan has come under heavy scrutiny by human rights organizations, which have long reported systematic violations of human rights, such as arbitrary detentions and imprisonment, and suppression of religious activity in the country. Such circumstances, in turn, prevented Western countries from establishing comprehensive and constructive cooperation with the Uzbek government. Few expected that a regime change in what was once firmly considered an isolated authoritarian state would transform not only the socioeconomic landscape of the country, but also bring positive reforms in the field of human rights and religious freedom.
In particular, on August 19 of this year, the Legislative Chamber of the Oliy Majlis of the Republic of Uzbekistan – the country’s parliament – published a draft law on amendments and additions to the country’s law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations.” The text of the draft was submitted to the European Commission for Democracy through Law (the Venice Commission) and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. The Venice Commission’s and OSCE’s experts issued a joint opinion on the draft law, noting such improvements as a reduction in the required minimum number of believers to create a religious organization, the lifting the ban on wearing religious clothing in public places, and the prerogative of the courts in determining the liquidation of a religious organization. They also highlighted remaining shortcomings and restrictions that do not conform to international human rights standards.
The draft of the law is part of Uzbekistan’s National Human Rights Strategy, the implementation of which was approved by a presidential decree in June 2020. As part of this strategy, Uzbek authorities plan to develop 33 draft laws, ratify eight international treaties, and adopt 53 legal acts aimed at increasing the accountability of state bodies, executing the recommendations of international organizations, and amending outdated laws and regulations.
There is no doubt that the international community took notice and approved of the recent measures taken by the government of Uzbekistan. This recognition was marked by the historic election of Uzbekistan to the U.N. Human Rights Council for the 2021-2023 period.
But now it is imperative that Tashkent continues on its chosen path. Indeed, thanks to the joint discussion and phased implementation by Uzbekistan of the recommendations of the international community to improve legislation to protect the rights and freedoms of citizens, to remove restrictions on the work of public organizations and the media, the country has managed to achieve substantial progress in building a democratic society.
However, some human rights organizations and individual representatives of Western countries, partly acknowledging the achieved success, urge the monitoring of the implementation by Uzbekistan of its legal obligations. Having previously described Uzbekistan’s plans to join the U.N. Human Rights Council as ambitious, human rights activists urged Uzbek authorities to investigate the claims of former political prisoners and support their full rehabilitation.
There are also more pessimistic views. Some observers have pointed to recent operations on the part of the Uzbek security services against alleged extremists as reminiscent of the previous government’s actions taken to eliminate political opposition under the guise of counterterrorism.
Despite these differing views and approaches, it is obvious that in present-day Uzbekistan not only the government has changed, but the attitude of many elected and appointed officials toward ordinary citizens and their pressing wants and needs has changed, too. Perhaps the Uzbek authorities do not have enough resources to tackle all of the accumulated problems at once, but certain efforts are clearly being made. Open borders, technology and communication is changing the general population’s worldview and perception of the events around them. Public thought and opinion formation is also changing, which will contribute to the development of a more proactive and robust civil society.
Undeniably, Uzbekistan needs to continue implementing the reforms it has initiated. It’s success so far is reflected in the building by Tashkent of a new format of relations with leading partner countries. Among such notable achievements is the recent upgrading of the annual U.S.-Uzbek bilateral consultations into a Strategic Partnership Dialogue and plans to commence an Enhanced Agreement on Partnership and Cooperation between the EU and Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan’s reform progress is a win-win for all parties. Uzbekistan improves its human rights record and has more leverage during negotiations, and the West can more openly engage with the Uzbek government without being harshly criticized for doing so.
Nodirjon Kirgizbaev is a former Uzbek diplomat and policy analyst.