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Is It Time for the US to Press Uzbekistan on Human Rights?

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Is It Time for the US to Press Uzbekistan on Human Rights?

A group of U.S. Senators have asked the Biden administration to center human rights in the upcoming Strategic Partnership Dialogue with Uzbekistan.

Is It Time for the US to Press Uzbekistan on Human Rights?
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In a December 6 letter, a group of U.S. Senate Democrats have urged Secretary of State Antony Blinken to ensure that human rights are at the center of discussion in the upcoming Strategic Partnership Dialogue with Uzbekistan.

The letter is signed by Senator Bob Menendez (New Jersey), the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, along with fellow Democrats Chris Van Hollen (Maryland), Dick Durbin (Illinois), Kirsten Gillibrand (New York), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), and Ben Cardin (Maryland).

In the letter the senators acknowledge progress on human rights made under Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev but state that “Despite much-lauded reforms, Uzbekistan remains among the world’s most repressive countries, and at risk of reversing recent gains.” The letter highlights revisions to Uzbekistan’s criminal code but notes that “many problematic provisions remain largely unchanged.” The letter also notes “the lack of substantial progress toward political liberalization.”

The upcoming Strategic Partnership Dialogue, the letter points out, is “the first of its kind under the enhanced partnership” and “offers a unique opportunity to establish respect for human rights as a fundamental component” of the U.S.-Uzbekistan relationship. 

The United States and Uzbekistan have held annual bilateral consultations since 2009. In November 2020, following an iteration of the talks that saw an Uzbek delegation led by Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov popping around Washington in the wake of a tense U.S. presidential election, the United States and Uzbekistan elevated their annual consultations to the level of a Strategic Partnership Dialogue.

The elevation of the dialogue was prefaced in 2018 when Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev visited Washington and met with then-U.S. President Donald Trump. It was the first visit of an Uzbek president to Washington since 2002. In a statement after their meeting the White House declared: “The leaders resolved to strengthen the bilateral relationship between the United States and Uzbekistan with a new dialogue to reinvigorate the 2002 Declaration of Strategic Partnership, building on a broad range of mutual priorities.”

The United States and Uzbekistan had signed a political and strategic partnership agreement back in March 2002, in the wake of 9/11 and increasing U.S. strategic interest in the Central Asian region as a result. Kamilov, who has served as Uzbekistan’s foreign minister for most of its independence (1994-2003, 2012-present), signed the agreement with then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The relationship soured in 2005, with sharp criticism from the United States over the Andijan massacre and Tashkent’s subsequent demand that U.S. forces vacate the old Soviet air base at Karshi-Khanabad (K-2), which Uzbekistan had been allowing Washington to use for the war effort in Afghanistan. Relations between the two countries remained strained but operational given continued U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. For example, although from 2006 to 2018 Uzbekistan was designated by the U.S. State Department as a “country of particular concern” when it came to religious freedoms, it was granted a waiver from sanctions on account of U.S. national security interests.

The bilateral relationship saw significant improvement after the death of Karimov in 2016. With the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington and Tashkent have an opportunity to rebalance their relationship, so long tethered to the Afghanistan issue. In their letter, the U.S. Senators stated that in the “aftermath of the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, our bilateral relationship with Uzbekistan has become even more important to our interests and out values.”

Arguably, it’s values that may finally re-enter the conversation now that U.S. interests in the region are shifting.