How to Advocate for Human Rights

by Joshua Foust on 9/14/2011 · 11 comments

For The Atlantic, I write:

These questions often float, unanswered, beneath the temporal moralism of people who think it’s effective advocacy of human rights to shut down a fashion show. Asking a very basic question — will this advocacy change things or even hurt things? — might have led them in a different direction. Looking at the long-term consequences of one’s advocacy is vitally important to actually achieving the goals one sets out to achieve. That’s why the Tashkent embassy worries that blind advocacy for a nebulous human rights agenda might actually make the lives of normal Uzbeks worse off.

It’s also why the fashionistas suddenly developing a sense of morals about the source of their fabrics can grate a bit. Of all the many horrible things the government of Uzbekistan has done to its people, it was fashion that raised their ire? Could that be any more condescending to the Uzbeks everyone says they care so much about?

More, obviously, at the link.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Turkistanian September 14, 2011 at 6:49 pm

Hello Josh. I think this is a difficult question because there are many parties involved. There are many parties involved who will win from boycotting Uzbek cotton, the first group that comes to my mind are competitors. there is a mysterious person on facebook who is openly calling all uzbeks to boycott/condemn uzbek cotton and at the same time promoting her own cotton brand which she claims “eco-friendly” (or whatever that was).
cotton is the backbone of the uzbek economy (especially if you agree that oil and gas revenues are mainly used for satisfying the caprices of our elite). therefore it will be the uzbek people who are the real losers in this whole pceudohumanitarian campaign. this is why i do not like this whole circus.

Bakinets September 15, 2011 at 6:26 am

Mr Foust, I think you are continuing to miss at least part of the point. You are certainly right that this particular action may not help the cause of human rights in Uzbekistan. But first of all, it is energizing to those fighting for human rights in Uzbekistan — an effort which everyone basically knows will not succeed until Karimov is dead (and maybe not then either) — to get a “win” like this. It’s good for morale, and that’s not nothing. Second and more important — isn’t it a good thing for human rights around the world generally if everyone understands that people like Gulya, who are closely linked with murderous dictatorships, will not be accepted at the fashion shows, the fundraisers, and the cocktail parties of US and European elites? Would you complain in the same way about a hypothetical effort to block Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s wife (I am being very hypothetical here, obviously) from being invited to attend, I don’t know, the Oscars as an honored guest of the Academy?

Nathan September 15, 2011 at 11:21 am

I think you’re missing part of the point too. It’s not whether or not calling for Gulnora to be barred is a good or bad thing so much as that it’s an odd and not particularly useful thing. There are other, more effective ways to make Uzbekistan a pariah if that’s the goal.

Not to be too negative, but so what if Uzbek activists get a morale boost? Aside from the Expert Working Group, which doesn’t support theatrical activism, they don’t accomplish anything. I would hazard to guess that most Uzbeks’ reaction to this would be some joy at her embarassment tempered by the realization that it doesn’t change the cost of bread or decrease the chances that the cops are going to shake you down for a bribe.

Bakinets September 15, 2011 at 2:30 pm

Nathan: Libyan activists had “not accomplished anything” until February 2011. I am not saying that anything similar will ever happen in Uzbekistan; but your dismissal of Uzbek activists is neither here nor there. Obviously there is no way to change the cost of bread or stop corruption in Uzbekistan without changing the regime.

You ignored my second and more important point: Do you think it makes no difference whether we live in a world where the Gulnara Karimovas, Teodorin Obiangs, and Saif Qaddafis are feted and treated with respect in New York and London (and think of the signal this sends to the normal Uzbek who sees it on TV); or a world where they are shunned and ostracized? Obviously it does make a difference, I am sure you would agree.

If we have to do business with these countries for reasons of self-interest, fine; but let’s leave it at that. So again, well done fashionistas and activists.

Nathan Hamm September 16, 2011 at 7:54 am

Sorry I ignored it, but if you want my thoughts… I think you’re being too broad. Yes, I think it matters if a government is doing it. No, I don’t think it matters if the fashion world is doing it. Nobody cares what the fashion world does, and that human rights groups think this, rather than (as Josh mentioned) Uzbek participation in international sports competitions or shaming western companies doing business with the Uzbek government underlines how hopelessly pointless their advocacy campaigns so often are.

For what it’s worth, I won’t claim to know what most Uzbeks think about seeing their elites feted in the West. I suspect it’s not much one way or another. I hear societies in Soviet successor states tend to be kind of cynical. And that’s my point about Uzbek activists, which is entirely on point. (Didn’t you bring them up?) Society is cynical. The activists bicker, fight, and self-promote. When an activist says “come on guys! change is possible” they get laughed off whatever website they’re on. I won’t claim to know anything about Libya, but if a similar situation were to erupt in Uzbekistan, I’d put money down it’ll have its roots in concerns over livelihood and how corruption affects the ability to make a living. And I’d further bet that most current activists will have very little to do with whatever happened to develop.

Sure, kudos for pulling this off, and I’ll admit that I’m impressed at the amount of journalism in mainstream outlets on the way Karimov governs and Karimova’s role in Uzbek business this had generated. But still, targeting fashionistas is easy. Aren’t they already kind of image conscious?

And just so we’re clear, I like human rights and democracy. I also like what’s possible and productive. I will give (almost) every human rights organization out there major credit for their phenomenal documentation of abuses. But their activism, at least in regard to Uzbekistan, is usually counterproductive.

Metin September 15, 2011 at 4:08 pm

all this looked like more like a smear campaign than human rights advocacy.

G.K. held her fashion show anyway, reportedly with success.

Bakinets September 15, 2011 at 6:52 pm

Metin, I know it is better as a rule to ignore you, but I am in a bad mood. When you say “smear campaign,” you are suggesting that charges were levelled against Gulnara Karimova that were not in fact justified by the facts. Can you elaborate on what exactly has been said about her in the context of the protests, or about the Karimov regime, that is not true? Good luck!

David September 16, 2011 at 12:02 am

I don’t really understand the negative reaction to this campaign. Countries like Uzbekistan understand that PR is important, they pay PR consultants a lot of money to make their regimes look more ‘normal’ and acceptable. Part of this normalisation process is for people like Gulnora to be accepted in showbiz society etc.. Anything that changes this perception of Uzbekistan – this narrative – as a perfectly acceptable regime, has a positive impact, not a negative one. This kind of media coverage has far more impact on the elite than any number of EU human rights dialogues, for example.

Mind you, Uzbekistan doesn’t need a PR campaign any more – US Centcom are doing it for them. I’ve only just stumbled across this dreadful site:

What a disaster…

Nathan Hamm September 16, 2011 at 7:56 am

While I think what Gulnora does is all Gulnora’s initiative rather than a government PR effort, I mostly want to say that I had never realized that awful website was sponsored by CENTCOM. What a waste of money…

Bakinets September 16, 2011 at 6:18 am

David, thanks for the link — wow, what an embarassment. It’s so stupid it hurts. I liked this article in particular —
— which featured this instance of “success against terrorism”: “An Uzbek male, Ismailov, was detained this year during a customs inspection of a Beinau-Kungrad train, Norgul Abduraimova of the Customs Committee said. “He was carrying extremist literature in Uzbek and Arabic. One of the books with the apparently innocent title ‘Does God Need Us?’ had clearly proselytising content, as confirmed by experts at the Religious Affairs Committee,” she said.”

Good thing this dangerous and violent terrorist has been locked up!!! Who knows what would have happened if he had made it to Kungrad with this dangerous book!!!!

David September 16, 2011 at 2:25 pm

I liked this ‘Unifighting against Terrorism’ piece too. I thought it was a spoof at first –

Why is Centcom even running websites? It’s like having a second State Dept, only with completely different policies.

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