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Revisiting Uzbekistan’s Progress on Religious Freedom 

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Revisiting Uzbekistan’s Progress on Religious Freedom 

Five years ago, Uzbekistan began re-engaging with the U.N. on matters of religious freedom. What progress has been made, and what remains to be done?

Revisiting Uzbekistan’s Progress on Religious Freedom 
Credit: Catherine Putz

In October 2017, Ahmed Shaheed — then the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief — was the first U.N. special rapporteur to visit Uzbekistan since 2002. The visit came in the first year of Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s presidency following the 2016 death of the country’s longtime ruler Islam Karimov. It was an era of strong reform commitments from Tashkent, and an opening of Uzbekistan to not just its neighbors but the global community.

As Uzbekistan began to re-engage with processes Karimov had long abandoned, Tashkent was inundated with a veritable avalanche of recommendations. Many addressed various human rights concerns, particularly related to religious freedoms, which under Karimov had been heavily restricted by international standards.

In early 2018, Shaheed submitted to the Human Rights Council and the Uzbek government a report containing his findings and outlining a dozen recommendations. In the summer of 2018, the Uzbek Parliament approved a roadmap to implement the U.N.’s recommendations; at the time a new law on religions was also in the works.

In the intervening years, there have been areas of progress — especially in regard to Uzbekistan’s relations with its neighbors and also the elimination of forced labor, which led to the end of the boycott of the country organized by the Cotton Campaign — paired with stagnation or, in some cases, regression as Mirziyoyev laid out his vision for “New Uzbekistan.” In the eyes of many analysts, Mirziyoyev’s Uzbekistan is a dusted off, modernized, updated version of Karimov’s strongman state but shares many characteristics with its predecessor. 

Five years after his momentous 2017 visit, Shaheed — whose special rapporteur mandate ended in July 2022 — and his team opted to revisit the recommendations they had made. This is a useful exercise, too rarely done, in which actual changes and efforts are laid up against recommendations and expectations. It is always easier to promise reforms than to enact them. 

The 2018 initial report contained 12 recommendations. The revisiting of the recommendations “assesses 16 areas to which the recommendations pertain, finding some progress in eleven and noting persistent gaps in five areas.”

The areas in which Shaheen determined his earlier recommendations had been “partially implemented” include those regarding secularism, reforming the country’s laws on the freedom of conscience and religious organizations, restrictions on religious literature, the facilitation of religious training, reform of the criminal code related to freedom of religion, countering terrorism and violent extremism, the matter of religious detainees, the promotion of religious literacy, the involvement of women religious leaders, the strengthening of national human rights institutions, and the rights of prisoners in regard to the freedom of religion.

The recommendations that Shaheen’s report determined have not been implemented include those pertaining to Uzbekistan’s ban on proselytism and missionary activity, the registration of religious or belief communities, restrictions on unregistered communities, religious education for children, and the surveillance of individuals and communities.

These are complex and interrelated issues. In many cases, while legislative changes have been made, implementation lags behind or changes have only been incremental, with much work to be done to bring Uzbek law into line with international standards. 

For example, in 2018 Shaheen recommended that Uzbekistan “[f]ollow through on the acknowledgement that the 1998 Law [on freedom of Conscience and Religious Organization] needs substantial revision.” A new religion law was, optimistically, hoped for by 2019 but did not materialize until 2021. In July 2021, the new religion law was finally enacted after a process that included some public input but remained rather murky, with no mechanism for public feedback on revisions of the initial draft. Ultimately, Shaheen’s latest report notes, “while the 2021 Law addresses numerous concerns raised by international stakeholders, the law still falls short of satisfying Uzbekistan’s obligations under Article 18 [of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights] and other international human rights law instruments.”

Uzbekistan’s Criminal Code has been under review since a 2018 presidential decree. A draft was unveiled in February 2021 with a short period for public comment. Two years later, the reform of the Criminal Code remains in limbo. Some aspects, Shaheed’s latest report notes, are promising, including the decriminalization of producing, importing and distributing religions materials and removal of references that “conflate religious belief and ‘extremism.’” But other troubling aspects remain, including criminal sanctions for unsanctioned meetings and the activities of unregistered religious organizations. The draft criminal code also retains the criminalization of same-sex sexual activity between men, deeming it a crime “against family, morality and children.” It also retains provisions that “appear to criminalize the peaceful exercise of religion or belief as ‘extremist,’ despite not amounting to internationally-accepted definitions of terrorism or incitement to violence or discrimination.”

It’s important to comprehend the ways in which matters of religious freedom intersect with other freedoms. Shaheed’s recent report points out that “UN Human Rights experts have drawn a clear link between freedom of religion or belief, and the freedom to express oneself, associate with others and assemble. They recognize that these rights are especially interconnected; an infringement on one can easily lead to diminished protections against violation for all four.”

For example, the ability of journalists to report on issues relevant to people is hampered when media outlets are fined for “illegal dissemination of religious materials” as happened to and in the summer of 2021. The offending articles included interviews with religious officials about Ramadan and a report about New Zealand incorporating hijabs into police uniforms. 

Shaheed’s five-year update report concludes with 14 follow-up recommendations, which reflect the ongoing nature of such work. In many cases, the recommendations urge the continuing of processes to reform laws and encourage open discussion of religious matters. Once again, Uzbekistan is urged to “revisit and refine” its ambiguous definitions of “extremism” in a way that safeguards the rights of belief, expression, association, and assembly.

Whether Uzbekistan takes on Shaheed’s new recommendations as enthusiastically as Tashkent appeared to five years ago is to be seen. He was scheduled to visit Uzbekistan again in 2021 but the government reportedly deferred the visit to the spring of 2022 and it’s not clear it took place before his mandate ended last July.