There is a continuing debate over whether the U.S. government should work with the abusive government in Uzbekistan or not. On one side is a coalition of human rights groups who object to the idea of working with a notorious rights abuser, and on the other is a rag tag, and uncoordinated group of analysts, policymakers, and officials who really don’t see any other options in the region (I am a part of the latter group).
Freedom House, one of the organizations that drafted (pdf) an open letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton imploring her not to reestablish relations with the Uzbek regime, has published a blogpost by Susan Corke, who left the State Department to head Freedom House’s Eurasia Program this year. Corke’s piece explains the primary objections to the arrangement. After reading it, however, I’m left more confused than ever about what, exactly, these human rights groups would have the U.S. government do.
For example, after noting the Uzbek government’s terrible human rights record, Corke asks, “why is the United States wooing one of the world’s most repressive regimes?” She answers her own question: Afghanistan, and the U.S. government’s need to use the Northern Distribution Network to move supplies and people out of Afghanistan as it withdraws. On this, everyone seems to agree: the U.S. is making a temporary alliance with the Karimov regime so it can withdraw from Afghanistan and maybe put pressure on Pakistan (a bonus to the policy which Corke does not mention). Corke, however, objects: “no policy goal is well served by sacrificing core values or downplaying strategic strengths.”
She goes on to complain that the U.S. government phoned Uzbek dictator Islom Karimov and hosted their Minister of Foreign Affairs.
This sort of high-level attention—with phone calls and visits involving the top representatives of the U.S. government—sends a troubling signal to elites, citizens, and beleaguered civil society activists, not only in Uzbekistan, but also in other authoritarian countries and in states that are teetering between democratic and authoritarian trajectories. To make matters worse, the courtship was not accompanied by basic steps like informing human rights groups of the planned secretarial visit early on, and soliciting their views on how to extract concessions from the Uzbek regime.
I’m not certain where Corke gets the idea that Uzbekistan is “teetering between democratic and authoritarian trajectories.” In fact, the entirety of her piece before this statement was about how Uzbekistan was irredeemably abusive and that was why the U.S. should not engage with the regime.
The second part of that paragraph, however, is even more troubling: why should the U.S. government solicit the views of the human rights community for “extracting concessions from the Uzbek regime?” Up until last month, the U.S. government was following the course of action the human rights industry had demanded it follow in 2004 — rapid, deep disengagement with the regime on the basis of its atrocious human rights record. Later in her piece, Corke admits, “Since 2005, the human rights situation has only gotten worse.” Moreover, the human rights industry’s methods of hectoring, fashion protests, and counterproductive boycotts has been especially ineffective at altering the regime’s behavior. Why should the State Department solicit their views, when the human rights industry has such a poor track record of effectiveness in Uzbekistan?
I’m sure that some human rights groups would argue they have been effective in changing the government’s behavior Uzbekistan. That’s a point I’m open to, and I will admit I’m wrong if presented with evidence (I’ve been looking for it for years, though). Unfortunately, Corke then begins a type of analysis I simply cannot abide, especially coming from a former employee of the State Department.
Sending the secretary of state to meet with a dictator like Karimov conveys legitimacy on a repressive regime. Doing so without first requiring positive steps toward addressing systemic human rights abuses is atrocious. Moreover, as the past year has reminded us, propping up dictators with the goal of preserving stability and security often has the opposite effect.
This is, put simply, a ludicrous standard for U.S. diplomatic engagement. Islom Karimov is abusive and his method of rule is unacceptable, but he is not an illegitimate ruler (at least in the sense of lacking some sort of mandate to govern, which the elites in Tashkent clearly convey to him). He is the head of government and recognized as such by the U.S. government. There is no additional “legitimacy” to convey. Moreover, if the Secretary of State should demand “positive steps” in the host nation’s human rights record before meeting the head of a repressive state, then the Secretary of State should never visit Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Russia, China, North Korea, Burma, Pakistan, Sudan, and dozens of other countries the Secretary of State clearly engages and meets with.
The thing is, basic statecraft requires working with unsavory regimes. There is a huge difference between limited engagement like the current U.S. plan for Uzbekistan, and total patronage like Saudi Arabia (and I’m certain Corke is smart and experienced enough to know that). And given the hemming and hawing with which the human rights industry greeted Human Rights Watch’s expulsion from Tashkent, the community is aware that in order to have any hope of changing a regime’s behavior, you must be there, and interact with them to do so. Demanding change as a precondition for engagement is not only backwards, it is little more than pouting guaranteed to be ineffective.
Corke concedes that Secretary Clinton called for more political freedom and human rights. “But her remarks were censored by the Uzbek media and went unheard within the country,” she writes. “Uzbek human rights activists (and others) were left with the impression that the United States cares more about deepening its relationship with Karimov than about improving human rights conditions for the people of Uzbekistan.”
This doesn’t scan. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan routinely called for greater political freedom and respect for human rights within the Soviet Union. His remarks were consistently censored by the Soviet media. The Soviet human rights activists still heard about his remarks. In Uzbekistan, the human rights activists (and by “others,” I presume Corke means the 99.999% of Uzbeks who are not human rights activists) have an even better understanding of what happens outside their country thanks to the Internet. The only way they would come to Corke’s conclusion about Secretary Clinton’s support for their rights is if activists like Corke keep insisting to them that that is U.S. policy (which it probably is: the government should prioritize its own citizens’ interests above those of any other country).
Unfortunately, this sort of backward thinking has come to define the human rights industry rebuke of the State Department’s outreach. In her recommendations, Corke says that first the U.S. government should “use its substantial leverage to require that the repressive regime take several tangible steps toward improving its human rights record.” But if the U.S. refuses to even visit with the regime beforehand, what leverage would it possibly have to coerce such a concession (as it stands, one of her examples of “tangible steps,” the release of political prisoners, took place after the U.S. government began its re-engagement). Her other suggestions, like meeting with activists, and somehow magically ensuring official remarks are not censored, are so unworkable in practice that I’m curious what, exactly, her expectations are. Is Hillary Clinton able to do this on state visits to China? What about Madeleine Albright’s visit to North Korea?
The sad fact of the matter is, human rights are only one concern among a great many in official U.S. decision making. With a war going on that is killing thousands of civilians and hundreds of U.S. troops ever year, officials must prioritize ending that conflict first, before worrying about how to help a country whose best hope under the current leadership is marginal and symbolic changes. And as much as the human rights industry waves away the calculation that this new Uzbek policy is a way to alter the government’s relationship with Pakistan, they have yet to proffer a viable alternative.
It’s sad to see the proper and correct outrage at Uzbekistan’s human rights record directed at the one thing with even a remote chance of ever improving it: U.S. engagement and pressure. But, it seems, effectiveness is not the priority of the human rights industry right now — feeling outraged is. And meanwhile, the people of Uzbekistan, in whose name the human rights industry acts, continues to suffer.