More on Shaming Dictators and Their Families

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by Joshua Foust on 9/26/2011 · 15 comments

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 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’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.

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This post was written by...

– 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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Abdurakhim September 27, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Any time an egomaniac – especially Uzbek – gets called out in public, it has two effects – come out swinging or crawl in the hole for self-reflection. Usually the former, but GooGoo has be shamed in a magnificent way. The public follow on effect (please read last weeks Telegram for the list of US companies that are now on the we -won’t-use-Uz-cotton bandwagon) is not insignificant, albeit also symbolic. In a practical way Brand Uzbekistan and Brand GooGoo are is continuing to decline in value. Even if it does not hit GooGoo’s wallet, rest assured, her ego is severely dented (“Hell hath no fury….). She can’t be ‘in the Fashion club’ with the other kids, and anyone who lives/lived in TAS knows that with these two girls, that’s what it’s all about. It’s confronting her with a painful reality that she is not loved or admired – a most bitter pill for an Uzbek Princess. And a very valuable exercise at many levels, which will be manifested over time.

The expectation that any type of protest, with the shared intention of bringing attention or ‘shaming’ in order to bring about change over the long run – especially in the era of instant communication, facebook, twitter etc. – must be superbly well coordinated by a foreign affairs/pr/wonk is simply naive and great for an analyst at RAND but not so for those that are in the field…

Nathan Hamm September 27, 2011 at 2:52 pm

Your point about the damage to “Brand Uzbekistan” is a good one.

But, New York ain’t “the field.” And at least where Uzbekistan is concerned, it’s a pretty long causal thread to claim that these actions do much to change the human rights situation, which, if the protesters are to be believed, is ultimately their intent.

Joshua Foust September 29, 2011 at 8:31 pm

I appreciate the point about “Brand Uzbekistan,” though I’d be curious what sort of brand it has. If people even know about Uzbekistan, it seems to be as often as a source of terrorism as anything else (something we’ve discussed on here before). But I do agree that calling attention to Uzbek-sourced products can be useful.

My impression of Gulnara, drawn entirely from press reports of her life, is that she is utterly, completely, totally shameless. I’m not sure this IMG cancellation of her show stings as much as the NY Post saying her clothes are ugly. I’m still not convinced that *really* does anything beyond making New Yorkers feel superior.

Realist Writer September 29, 2011 at 11:56 am

“Any time an egomaniac – especially Uzbek – gets called out in public”

Is it possible that we are all egomaniacs and do not realize it? It seems incredibly possible that those who participate in this campaign may have an outsized sense of ego if they believe their criticism can have a meaningful impact, if THEIR participation is the key element…

David September 29, 2011 at 5:21 pm

There are several things I disagree with here (not least the idea that human rights were improving in 2004), but I do think this point is particularly misleading:

‘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’

I think this shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the system. Torture is endemic within it, because the system needs it to function properly. If the police stop using violence, people will go out on to the streets and protest. And the last thing the regime wants is police going around trying to gather genuine evidence to prove a case – that would assume that a judge was going to take an independent decision based on that evidence.

Overall, I find it odd that of all the things in the world to be angry about, this site finds a well-meaning protest against human rights abuses in Uzbekistan the most appealing target. ..

Joshua Foust September 29, 2011 at 8:39 pm

Wait a minute, if the police behaved like normal police people would take to the streets in protest? How does that scan?

Oh also, people already take to the streets when they dislike something.

Around 1,000 students and university professors in the southern Uzbek town of Termez have protested against neighboring Tajikistan’s plan to expand its aluminum plant near Uzbek territory, RFE/RL’s Tajik Service reported.

Yes yes, that’s not directly protesting an Uzbek government action, but if there really was so much fear of reprisal—how many thousand person economic and environmental protests stay perfectly non-political anyway?—why would so many rush the streets in protest like that?

Or maybe you mean like the 15 activists the Uzbek government arrested in June for protesting the Kyrgyz government’s refusal to hold the perptrators of last year’s ethnic riots in Osh to account? Only they didn’t seem very afraid of taking to the streets when it seemed to matter.

So I really don’t know what your point is. I’m angry because freaking out over a fashion show is a distraction and a waste of limited resources when there are more productive, longer term, and ultimately more beneficial things the human rights industry could be doing to improve the situation in Uzbekistan. The angry defending of such a monumental waste of time is only driving the point home how much more our own outrage, here in the states, seems to matter more than doing something tangible and effective to improve conditions in Uzbekistan.

Nathan Hamm September 29, 2011 at 8:42 pm

FWIW, that aluminum plant protest was almost certainly organized by the government.

However, there were some protests at bazaars in Urgut earlier this year over closures of bazaars.

Nathan Hamm September 29, 2011 at 8:41 pm

David, if it makes you feel better, I think the police and prosecutor training is probably a waste of time. The time for it, if there was one, has passed. The idea is, I think, still a good one in the abstract, but unlikely to be much good in Uzbekistan.

That said,

Torture is endemic within it, because the system needs it to function properly. If the police stop using violence, people will go out on to the streets and protest.

displays glaring misunderstanding of post-Soviet, and especially Uzbek, society. Sarah Kendzior’s latest article is a good one to read on this.

I think there’s a misunderstanding of what Josh and I are talking about here. It’s not that well-meaning protests are worth being angry about. It’s that the discussion over this — and much of the larger discussion on improving human rights in Uzbekistan — is fundamentally unserious. Nobody wants to talk about the actual, possible things that can be done to start making things better in three, six, twelve months. Instead, it’s all underwear gnomes thinking — some grand scheme to turn Uzbekistan into a rainbow farm inhabited by unicorns.

Metin September 30, 2011 at 3:15 pm

“I think the police and prosecutor training is probably a waste of time. The time for it, if there was one, has passed.”

why to be so pessimistic? investing in human is usually ineffective when people are poor. Hungry people care much about their stomach, not about human rights. We saw this in Kyrgyzstan where democratic society was and is so indifferent for violations of rights of minorities.
In Uzbekistan the situation has been changing for better – there are less poor than in 2005. Now engaging with Uzbekistan can be more effective for human rights protection than it has been in past.

Turgai Sangar October 1, 2011 at 8:18 am

“there are less poor than in 2005.”

Actually, that is so. But that is not thanks to Karimov but to the remittances from labour migrants in Russia, Kazakhstan etc…

David September 30, 2011 at 6:41 am

Well, I find it hard to understand how you could both reach the conclusion that fear of the security forces does not play a role in Uzbekistan’s political (and economic) system. There are occasional small protests in the provinces – it is not North Korea after all – but if you have 1,000 people on the street for a demonstration, anyone who has spent any time in Uzbekistan understands that it is a government-sanctioned rally. Any other conclusion suggests, as Nathan puts it so elegantly, ‘a glaring misunderstanding of post-Soviet, and especially Uzbek, society’.

Nathan September 30, 2011 at 8:06 am

The recent Urgut protest was not a government-sanctioned protest. Details are sketchy, but it probably had more than 1,000 people.

To say that my position is that the security forces don’t play a role is a straw man. You did say though that police violence is the primary factor preventing protest. That’s absurd. I can think of two examples — Chorsu and Kokand in 2003-2004 — where police heavy-handedness was likely the cause of attacks on police and protest.

Bakinets October 2, 2011 at 4:54 am

Let’s stop the narrow focus on Uzbekistan for just a second. We can live in a world in which the children and spouses of the nastiest and most murderous dictators the world over are feted in the US and Europe, have their photos taken with Bill Clinton, and are considered an acceptable part of elite society — thanks to the money their families have stolen that gives them entree to this world. There is another world where these people are shunned and treated as pariahs. Joshua and Nathan believe this first world is just fine; or anyway they don’t care one way or another. Most other people of conscience would disagree. Fine, let’s move on.

Realist Writer October 3, 2011 at 9:21 pm

I’m sure Joshua and Nathan cares a whole lot about dictatorships all around the world, it’s just that this blog only focuses on Central Asia and that is where their (recognized) expertise is at. Ranting about dictatorships outside of their expertise will damage their reputation and cause people to disregard what they are saying. Plus, they might say something wrong about those states outside Central Asia and get embarrassed…better to avoid the risk.

They are intentionally limiting the targets they hate on, so that people are more likely to believe them. This is not immoral. This is not wrong. This is just strategic behavior.

lone wolf October 2, 2011 at 3:12 pm

its a shame about the cotton issue but u must understand
goonhora karamitova has needs,a pretty boyz,maybe pretty gurls.
maybe a brand new car, ring etc.

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