Last week, the European Union announced that Uzbekistan had been accepted as the ninth beneficiary of the Special Incentive Arrangement for Sustainable Development and Good Governance, GSP+, intended to support “vulnerable developing countries” that have ratified a bevy of international conventions on human rights.
The core benefit of GSP+ is the full removal of tariffs on two-thirds of all goods present in the EU’s official product list. Tashkent had already received some preferential treatment under the wider Generalized Scheme of Preferences (GSP) arrangement, but now will see many tariffs drop to zero on goods headed for Europe. The country applied to the EU for entry into the GSP+ scheme in June 2020.
While the trade balance between the EU and Uzbekistan sat at 2.3 billion euros in 2019, it’s heavy weighted toward European exports to Uzbekistan. In 2019, Europe imported 190 million euros worth of goods from Uzbekistan; that year Europe exported 2.4 billion euros worth of goods to Uzbekistan. The height of recent imports to Europe from Uzbekistan came in 2011, at 359 million euros. By 2018, imports hit a decade low of 169 million euros. The imbalance aside, there’s room for Uzbek trade with Europe to grow, especially given progressively better reports over recent years from the International Labor Organization (ILO) with regard to forced labor in the cotton industry.
The EU’s pending approval of Uzbekistan’s GSP+ pursuit was signaled back in November 2020, with the European Commission drawing up the necessary legislation. Uzbekistan had ratified the 27 core international conventions on human and labor rights, environmental and climate protection, and good governance that the scheme mandates. In reviewing Uzbekistan’s recent history, the November report on the country’s GSP+ application noted that following Uzbekistan’s May 2018 Universal Periodic Review, the country accepted 93 percent of the recommendations made. “The remaining recommendations relate to LGBTQI rights,” the report noted.
The timing of the GSP+ approval proves somewhat awkward on this point.
In late March, Uzbek blogger and activist Miraziz Bazarov was assaulted in Tashkent ostensibly because he had urged the government to decriminalize sexual relations between men. The Uzbek political sphere erupted, with state agencies and many on social media blaming Bazarov for his own assault because he was provocative. In general, there was a clear doubling down on the Uzbek government’s anti-LGBTQ position.
The EU’s November report identified a number of “shortcomings” when comes to Uzbekistan’s adherence to various international conventions, but does not consider them “serious failures,” merely areas future monitoring — mandated by the GSP+ scheme — would pay attention to. With regard to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, for example, these shortcomings range from the above-noted LGBTQ issue, to broad and vague definitions of “extremism” used to restrict religious activity and “undue restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly in law and in practice.” Other shortcomings included the propiska system, unreasonably burdensome requirements for NGO registration, and the continued criminalization of defamation and insult to the president.
On that last bit, the timing was also not opportune. Rather than decriminalizing defamation as pledged, Uzbekistan recently added the online sphere to the list of mediums in which it is illegal to insult the president.
In December 2020, Human Rights Watch urged the EU to not move so quickly to approve Uzbekistan for GSP+, concluding that the country’s shortcomings “perpetuate or continue to cause grave human rights violations and therefore could in fact constitute serious failures of Uzbekistan’s obligations to abide by core human rights treaties.”
Nevertheless, Uzbekistan was approved. According to the EU, once a country is granted GSP+, the commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS) “must, therefore, monitor that it abides by its commitments” of remaining a party to the mandated international conventions, complying with reporting requirements, and accepting regular monitoring. Countries entered in the the scheme are measured against a scorecard created by the commission based on the assessed shortcomings. “[B]eneficiaries… are expected to demonstrate their serious efforts towards tackling the issues set out in the scorecards,” an EU factsheet states.
The system is designed to allow Europe to have its cake (espousing support for human rights) and eat it, too (bypassing the finicky matter of full compliance with ongoing assessments of effort.) It’s an attempt to balance human rights concerns with economic concerns, both for the EU and developing countries. The results give rise to differing perspectives on what leverage external bodies, such as EU, really have regarding Uzbekistan and how best to deploy that leverage to encourage progress on human rights.
Uzbekistan joins Armenia, Bolivia, Cape Verde, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka in the GSP+ cadre. Many of these countries continued to wrestle with serious human rights issues, drawing criticism to the GSP+ scheme as not necessarily effective in its aims. Last year, the European Parliament threatened to revoke the Philippine’s GSP+ status but backed away from the threat.