TOL’s Barbara Frye remains unhappy with my disdain toward the Campaign to End Uzbek Fashion.
If the protest was so inconsequential, then why did Foust write a post that was so dismissive and caustic in its criticism? The essential points of the protest – to bring attention to the Uzbek government’s appalling use of child labor in its cotton harvest and to signal to Karimova, who has profited handsomely as the daughter of a despot, that the organizers were not willing to overlook her country’s human rights abuses – still seem perfectly legitimate to me.
I’m sure they do, Barbara. But the fact that people like you, along with a constellation of other activists who really should be paying attention to, I don’t know, things that actually matter, have dropped so much Holy Attention on something so miniscule draws my concern. Remember: I am calling for focus, and a plea for spending limited resources on effective advocacy rather than empty symbolism (which is the best a fashion protest can ever be). So let’s unpack your post, shall we?
did it help or harm the human rights situation in Uzbekistan? It’s too early to know if it did any harm, but we have been here before, as when activists protested Karimova’s participation last year in a fundraiser for AIDS research, just as her country had imprisoned an anti-AIDS campaigner (showing the same obliviousness to irony that she showed this year in the fashion-cotton debacle). Maksim Popov received a seven-year sentence but was quietly freed in June. I won’t pretend there’s a cause and effect relationship between last year’s protest and the release, but I think it’s safe to say the kerfuffle didn’t backfire.
I’m glad you won’t pretend there is a causal relationship, Barbara, because if you’re familiar with my work you’d know that helping the military-industrial complex learn the difference between correlation and causation is one of my favorite activities that gives me a headache. I’m sure the human rights industry doesn’t need as much help in learning the folly of claiming credit for things they didn’t cause but happened kind of near something they wanted to do, but I’m not shy about it so we can go there if need be.
As it stands, the AIDS benefit “controversy” was in May; Maksim Popv was quietly released one month later. We can conclude two things: either a consistent drumbeat of state-level pressure, along with pleas from the UNDP and 13 months of public shaming by an international group of officials and activists helped get Popov released… or throwing GooGooSha out of an AIDS benefit did. Yes yes, I know, maybe the AIDS benefit thing pushed it all over the top. But really, if you’re going to even hint at it, Barbara, please do us all the favor of having the tiniest shred of evidence to support it, rather than your posturing and a “look, I’m just saying.”
I never expected the cancellation to have an effect, by itself, on the human rights situation.
Honestly, this should be the end of the discussion. Because on this, Barbara and I agree wholeheartedly. But she wrote another 600 words or so, including a dig about whether I knew there was already an international cotton ban (yes I did, Barbara, please drop the affect). And while Ms. Frye apparently doesn’t like my using a Wikileaked cable from 2008 to show that the State Department did not prefer a more confrontational diplomatic approach to Uzbekistan, we can always go back to what the State Department was doing before Andijan, say in its 2004 Human Rights Report.
It is in this 2004 Human Rights Report—do activists like Barbara Frye know how much labor (a limited resource!) the State Department spends writing these reports as compared to engaging with the governments in question about actually improving their human rights records?—that we find something remarkable: during a period of relatively little confrontation, with the U.S. making gentle public urges for Uzbekistan to continue the genuine (if small) improvements from 2003-2004, Uzbekistan’s human rights situation actually got better. Throughout 2004, a steady drumbeat by human rights organizations demanded the U.S. and international organizations step up their criticism of the Karimov regime. By the time of the Andijon uprising and massacre in 2005, relations between the U.S. and Uzbekistan had already soured; as the 2005 Human Rights Report catalogues, that massacre was only one of several incidents of a rapid deterioration in human rights in the country.
The point here is not that things are necessarily better in Uzbekistan now than at some arbitrary point in the past (and in fact, Uzbekistan is only one of several countries in Central Asia that are regressing on their human rights records). The point is that the State Department has seen various levels of success depending on the type of engagement it practices. To borrow Barbara’s phrase: I won’t pretend there’s a cause and effect relationship between the State Department’s efforts to engage the Uzbek government on human rights and the marginal improvement we’ve seen when they’ve adopted a less confrontational tone with officials, but (and here’s where I part with Barbara) there is a helluva lot more evidence that calm, careful prodding by diplomats from the embassy do a lot more to improve the plight of ordinary Uzbeks in a non-flashy, actually systemic way, than hoping we gave ordinary Uzbeks some sort of optimism by embarrassing GooGooSha on the Upper West Side this one time that was, seriously awesome because we, like, totally showed her who’s boss.
As Registan.net founder Nathan Hamm has been arguing eloquently for years (this is from 2005):
I believe that heaping condescending scoldings upon the Uzbek government, as Murray has done, is not an effective strategy for those genuinely interested in stopping torture in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan’s government is pretty touchy, and the type of criticism preferred by the Left tends to lead to backlashes from touchy governments. I’m not saying that it’s necessary to walk on eggshells or keep all criticism out of the public’s view. I’m saying that it’s necessary to tone down the rhetoric and recognize and reward improvements when improvements occur. And they do occur, despite what bombastic, overheated critics may assert.
Nathan’s big idea, of training the police to secure convictions in criminal proceedings through evidence rather than confessions, would go a long way toward ending torture—and is a good idea regardless, that requires engagement rather than confrontation to achieve small, but consistent gains in human rights. But the GooGooSha incident is, I guess, about cotton laborers? I’m not entirely clear on that, since the Human Rights Watch people also made a lot of noise about the Karimov regime’s general odiousness. Which is absolutely true—the Karimovs are odious. But that’s not the point: is loudly shrieking about how the Karimovs are bad people an effective means of, in this case, ending the exploitation of children in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields?
I assure you, and Barbara, and anyone who still feels really smug about the “victory” of forcing Gulnara to show her ugly smocks at a high-priced Italian restaurant, that this is not effective. Like, at all. Besides which, since we all know agree we all know about the seven-year old ban on Uzbek cotton, do we know if that has been effective? Singling out Uzbek’s cotton from the global supply is notoriously difficult, and this is an effort being spearheaded by a consortium of large retailers and supply chain firms. Has it worked?
Well, when Wal-Mart announced its ban on Uzbek cotton in 2008, the Uzbek government in short order issued an immediate ban on child labor in the cotton fields. While this ban was not effective (there was no way for the field workers to make their quotas without using children, among many other issues), the efforts of industry to affect Uzbekistan’s economy were effective at getting at least some token behavior. Has expending so much air on GooGooSha’s fashion show done anything remotely similar? It has not.
There are a lot of reasons Uzbek children are forced to pick cotton. I’m sure Barbara Frye has read Registan.net’s coverage of this problem for many many years and only meant her comments about my not knowing of it in jest; that being said, I remain both amused and deeply disappointed that the best the human rights industry can do after all this time is claim a canceled runway show and call it success. Haranguing Gulnara Karimova in New York City will not address the many systemic issues that result in children picking cotton (and oh yeah let’s not forget Tajikistan, where conditions in the fields are even worse!). Ending child labor in Uzbekistan requires patience and long years of work at altering the systemic incentives for conscripting child laborers.
In contrast to the very hard work of reforming Uzbekistan’s institutional foundation, this past month’s yelling and preening at a fashion show in New York is worse than counterproductive: it is the worst sort of empty self-congratulatory empty symbolism. Surely the children of Uzbekistan—it is all about the kids on this one, right?—deserve better.
Image: Protesters urge José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, who received a visit on 24 January, 2011 by President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, to make human rights central to their discussions., courtesy Amnesty International.