Uzbekistan and the Libya Precedent

by Joshua Foust on 11/15/2011 · 41 comments

Tom Malinowski, the Washington Director of Human Rights Watch, made an interesting comparison today in Foreign Policy:

After all, for a little love from the West, Qaddafi gave up his nuclear program and suspended his support for terrorism. These were not trivial concessions. And in any case, with whom was one to deal in Libya if not Qaddafi? … Yet cultivating Libya’s dictator also carried costs. It reinforced the cynicism with which many people in the Middle East viewed American and European claims that they were pursuing principled policies in their region. As it turned out, that cynicism was shared by the Qaddafis themselves. It may have contributed to their miscalculation in March, when they ignored the U.N. Security Council’s demand that they stop a brutal military offensive against opposition-held areas…

To the Qaddafis, the notion that the West would suddenly stand firm for human rights or anything else must have seemed, as Saif told many interviewers, a “joke.”

He goes on to explicitly compare Uzbekistan to Libya. And this is fine, as Libya has set a precedent for the relationship of the human rights industry to regime change, whether they like it or not. The problem, which Malinowski completely glosses over, is that such a deliberate association also turns human rights activists into agents of regime change. That is, the argument Human Rights Watch is advocating — essentially an endorsement for the violent overthrow of a regime, and the strong role that human rights play in that violent overthrow — creates the relationship between human rights and threats to regime survival.

In such a situation, what would any dictator do? If Islom Karimov is looking at Libya the same way Human Rights Watch is, then surely the lesson he is drawing is that any concessions to the West on human rights, terrorism, or anything else — those non-trivial concessions Malinowski notes — will result in regime failure. It is a disincentive to ever cooperate on social issues, not the other way around.

Surely this is not what Malinowski wants to argue. But it is the inevitable result. From a big picture perspective, the intervention in Libya makes improvements in human rights elsewhere less likely, not more so — especially when the human rights industry draws an explicit parallel between Libya and another target dictatorship.

And this is pretty apparent even if you ignore the annoying confusion of Realism, which is a theory of international affairs and foreign policy, and realism, which is choosing to take the world as it is rather than what you wish it to be. I couldn’t agree any more with Malinowski’s endorsement of the latter concept, which is why his policy prescriptions here are so confusing. To wit:

That said, I think that the administration could have driven a harder bargain with Uzbekistan. Karimov should not have had to be bribed to help the United States succeed in Afghanistan; he benefits from stability there, and his cronies already profit handsomely from U.S. military contracts.

As a realist (small-R), does this make any sense, whatsoever? One of the challenges to creating a regional security solution for Afghanistan, I argued in a paper for the Century Foundation’s Task Force on Afghanistan and Pakistan last year, is that the Central Asian states do not necessarily have the same interests in Afghanistan as the United States. The Uzbek regime in particular is infamous for using the threat of Islamic militants to not only scare money out of Western countries but also to justify brutal crackdowns on political opponents — something Human Rights Watch itself has documented and criticized. How would Karimov and his cronies benefit from stability in Afghanistan, if it denies him that very convenient excuse for oppression?

Moreover, this “harder bargain” language fascinates me. For weeks, as the human rights industry has shrieked in paroxysmal rage at the U.S. reengagement with Tashkent, there have been calls to use America’s “substantial leverage” to try to force more concessions from the Uzbek government. This leverage is almost never stipulated (i.e. “what is the leverage that we have”), nor is the method by which this leverage can be used to gain more concessions. I really want to see some realistic (small-R) talk from the human rights activists about this, since it is one of the main pillars of critique against working with the Uzbek regime. (It’s worth noting that, despite weeks of requests for alternatives, the rights community has been disturbingly silent on how to actually do this.)

As a small-R realist, Malinowski should be grappling with these issues. He should describe the political context comprehensively, rather than tacitly endorsing violent revolution (a shocking thing for a human rights activist to do). He should also come forward with how the U.S. can better achieve its primary goal — withdrawing from Afghanistan — in a way that does not offend his sensibilities. Right now, however, the outcry over reengagement with Uzbekistan is stuck at complaining Islom Karimov is a bad man, and the U.S. should never work with bad men. Worse than being unhelpful, such a stance excludes the human rights people from participating in the policy discussion, since it reduces their criticism to the level of unserious whining instead of constructive engagement.

Then again, that’s what a lot of human rights activism in Central Asia has been reduced to anyway. So I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised.

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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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Uzbek November 15, 2011 at 1:31 pm

The oppressive regime of Islom Karimov knows that at any given moment the Libya scenario might repeat itself in Uzbekistan. This is why the local media in Uzbekistan was ordered to ignore the Arab Spring altogether and not to report anything about Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, demonstrations in other Arab countries and ultimately, a bloody end to Qaddafi’s regime. Karimov’s regime knows what needs to be fixed and they fix just enough. For example, after the Arab Spring they allowed people from provinces to buy real estate and live in Tashkent, changing the propiska system 180 degrees. Under the propiska system, if you are born in the provinces, you should live and work there and not allowed to move to Tashkent. A holdover from tzarist and Soviet times propiska was used by the Soviets to control population’s internal movements and also to better plan for providing social services, education and healthcare. But the Uzbek authorities had turned the propiska system into their personal ATM, charging bribes up to $10,000 to $15,000 to grant people the right to live in Tashkent. I have an MBA from an American university and by the logic of Uzbek authorities I should go back to my village and find work there and live there – I am not allowed to move to Tashkent where I can market my skills better and improve my financial position. Uzbek regime denies you even your economic opportunity. Everybody thinks that if Uzbeks start a revolution the propiska system will be the straw that breaks camel’s back. So what Islom Karimov did right after he saw what happened to Qaddafi? He issued a decree saying that all citizens have a right to live in Tashkent… There are a lot of parallels between the oppressive regimes of the Middle East and Karimov’s regime but I don’t know if what happened in Egypt will happen in Uzbekistan. I wouldn’t be surprised if Karimov and his cronies are learning every tactic Bashar is using to stay in power. They might have lost sleep nights following Qaddafi’s death but must be rooting for Bashar and learning from him, probably.

Will November 15, 2011 at 2:23 pm

Let’s not forget that for most people “propiska” or residence registration is not a significant problem in their day to day lives. If Karimov was concerned about fixing things after the Arab spring, he would be paying more attention to the more important social issues like heating, food costs, unemployment etc. Noone will go out to the street to protest “propiska”. So I don’t see the parallel here. By the way, “propiska” is not yet open, and it is not clear from the decree whether non-Tashkent residents are allowed to get permanent residence permission.

Uzbek November 18, 2011 at 9:08 am

@ Will,

While there is discontent in Tashkent also, the most of it is in rural areas. Tashkent is a big, clean and modern city with metro and all the modern amenities. If you have a good job, friends, access to the Internet and international TV channels you can create for yourself a normal life and to a certain degree isolate yourself from the regime and not feel its oppressive hand in your daily life. It is in the rural areas, where I come from you really feel the oppression, annulment of your rights to prosperity. If Libya happens in Uzbekistan, it will not be Tashkent people who will start it but people in the provinces. Once, it did start, in Andijan….google Andijan 2005..Tashkent people did not join them because as you said “”propiska” system does not effect their daily lives. The devil is in the detail, and the “propiska” system is the core of corruption. There are other thing but this one if the biggest and the most obvious that has direct impact on people’s daily lives. It did on my daily life.

Uzbek November 18, 2011 at 11:33 am

By the way “propiska” was one of the demands of Andijan 2005 revolt. The people who took to the streets made a list and it was one 10 demands that they had for the President.

Metin November 16, 2011 at 3:26 am

no offence Uzbek, if you’ve got MBA from an American University, what are you doing in Uzbekistan?
does this country attract MBA graduates with high paid jobs in Tashkent?

Uzbek November 18, 2011 at 8:59 am

@ Metin,

I am indeed in the US now. Ironically, it was easier for me to get a job in the US and get a green card rather than getting “propiska” in Tashkent. So America obtained one educated man and Uzbekistan lost the same man.

Dilshod November 18, 2011 at 10:50 am

So happy for you, really. Uzbekistan cannot simply afford your “brains”. Maybe at some later point. When you decide to work for the good of your people …

Uzbek November 18, 2011 at 11:28 am

@ Dilshod, I feel sarcasm in your “afford your brains” comment and would like to state that it is not a question of affording or not, it is a question of wanting or not. Though my expertize and education is valued in the US much more than in Uzbekistan, that’s a fact and you can’t deny that. I understand if I worked in Uzbekistan I would be contributing tangible things like paying my taxes and intangible things like my education and expertise would be of some use to whatever organization I would be working for. But that didn’t happen because corruption and any half-educated police officer threatening me and soliciting bribe because I happen to be born in the provinces, not in Tashkent and inability to get justice for these injustices. This is also a loss for Uzbekistan which is much bigger than losing an Uzbek with an American MBA.

Metin November 18, 2011 at 1:35 pm

good for you. Though I doubt that there was a big loss for the country.

Uzbek November 18, 2011 at 1:45 pm

One person is not a big loss but this is a part of the bigger trend of brain drain. Youth in Uzbekistan, especially those in the provinces, do not see any future for themselves or their rights to prosperity is abused by the authorities. That is my point and that trend will damage Uzbek economy permanently. It will be very late when the Uzbek state wakes up and discovers a talent shortage.

Metin November 18, 2011 at 1:58 pm

how does what you say relate to ‘propiska’? it is natural that a person like you with MBA from an american University sees no future in Uzbekistan. I don’t think living in Tashkent would satisfy your expectations either. Face it, it is not America.
Things are not that hopeless you describe. In fact, things are getting better compared with the past. I hope that people won’t lose you like you did and will try to do their best to improve their lives.

Jim November 15, 2011 at 3:00 pm

I think in your effort to marry two Foustian memes you’ve broken your brain:

“such a deliberate association also turns human rights activists into agents of regime change. That is, the argument Human Rights Watch is advocating — essentially an endorsement for the violent overthrow of a regime, and the strong role that human rights play in that violent overthrow — creates the relationship between human rights and threats to regime survival.”

What? You might want to, ya know, support that. Because I’m not reading anything in your piece that does. If I’ve missed something please let me know.

Boris Sizemore November 15, 2011 at 6:16 pm

My immediate reaction was “no way.” But actually thinking about it, the comparison is apt. Uzbekistan is actually a Libya +++.

A. A large disenfranchised population. The population is seething in a haze of injustice which permeates the very atmosphere creating a near choking impulse.

B. Resentment, anger, reaching higher temperatures each year, which results in a similar increase in repression by limited corrupt Police State protecting the Dictator’s Family and assets. Jet setting Elite have already stashed their cash in the new Apartments and Boulevards in the Central Zone of Moscow.

C. Borderline early gestation period of Islamic Radical Units.

D. Dictator is definitely “old school” and has been in place at least one and half generations of the seething population’s recent history, easily centralizing and focusing the population’s sum total anger in one direction, conveniently.

E. Previous cases of mass repression and armed insurrection in areas remote to the Capital City, and mixed local and diaspora population-all sectors alienated from the Center.

F. Military much smaller, and poorly equipped. Uzbekistan is not Syria or “Iran” for that matter.

All we need to add is Sarkozy, Clinton and Cameron looking for another diversion from riots, occupations or economic distress???

But this does have the potential for the first insertion “order creating” conditions for the Shanghai pact which everyone scoffs at as a non effective effort. I think Malinowski may have hit on something here.

The “New” Putin could be “reshaper” of the Russian borderlands. Tashkent is the big city(believe it or not), more central to big picture, Bishkek is on the Periphery.

Guess we all need to wait and see, the CA Spring may be on its way faster than we dare anticipate, and faster than a long term insurgency in development.

As Lenin would observe the “objective conditions are all there.”

anan November 17, 2011 at 10:00 pm

Boris, are the “occupy” movements large outside the US? In the latest national US polling the “occupy wall street movement” is significantly less popular than the tea party movement. And the tea party movement itself is opposed by a plurality of Americans.

It is hard to see how the “occupy” movement in the US could rise to more than 10% hard core support and 20% sympathy. Which would make them a powerful special interest group that could significantly affect elections. i.e. A smaller version of the tea party. But more than that?

Unless you think the “occupy” and tea party movement combine and morph into some kind of anti big government [pro spending cuts, pro deregulation], anti crony capitalism, anti bailout, pro personal responsibility movement? Morphing with the Ron Paul crowd perhaps? How likely is that?

“All we need to add is Sarkozy, Clinton and Cameron looking for another diversion from riots, occupations or economic distress” I don’t think this is a factor. Governments around the world are trying to portray themselves as pro business, pro education, pro transforming the skills of workers for the industries and technologies of tomorrow. Anything that distracts the press from these stories hurts them.

Not sure what any of this has to do with Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is viewed by ISAF, India, Russia, Afghanistan through the prism of Afghanistan and the Northern Supply Route. Approximately 68% of US land supplies go through the Northern supply route. 76% of that 68% transit through Russia. [non US ISAF supply information is difficult to obtain] Russia and India are trying to persuade ISAF to make a long term commitment to Afghanistan, the GIRoA and ANSF to free ride on others fighting Russia’s and India’s enemies.

The goal of ISAF, Russia and India is 100% of land based supplies to ISAF in Afghanistan going through the Northern Supply Route, which would increase ISAF, Afghan, Russian, Indian leverage on Pakistan. All of them identify parts of the Pakistani establishment as the “enemy” . . . although none of the others with the passion of the Afghans.

This means that Russia, India, Afghanistan and ISAF don’t want instability in Uzbekistan. It interferes with their goal of 0% reliance on the Pakistani supply route and pressure on Pakistan.

Would any country in the international community support freedom movements in Uzbekistan? I can’t think of even one.

Turgai November 18, 2011 at 6:09 am

Anan, at the end of the day, the big geopolitics (whether wrapped in Hopkirk-esque Great Game romanticism or not) are not a determining factor in the outbreak of upheaval and the overthrow of regimes. They do allow regimes to buy time. But internal factors, both within the regimes and wider society, are much more important. I mean, Russia, the EU, US, China, … also want ‘stability’ in the Arab world. And for all that, and all the think-tanks and experts, what happened did happen and hardly anyone saw it coming. All they do is run behind the facts.

Boris Sizemore November 19, 2011 at 1:39 am



The Clinton, Cameron, and Sarkozy to the rescue, was just a joke.
I think Putin saw that “gambit” in the right way. A cheap power grab, supporting one group against another with the end goal of a more pliable regime for Hero Sarkozy. Human Rights? Both sides have been animals. You can forget that whole picture, and do not expect any improvement from the next regime.

I get around to each of the Stans(Four Year Visa) and China(with Josh Novak) every year, and can see what the US policy game in each is about.

As I indicated above the Karimov “Klan” has got to go. The sooner we pull up all the pegs, and let that happen the better. It’s noxious. Worse than Myanamar, Worse than Qadaffi Libya, and worse than anything but North Korea and Taliban controlled corners in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

There are very few as oppressed peoples over the last century, especially since the Stalinist Cotton boom and the slave labour imports all throught the 20/30s/40s and 50s.

This is one of those, “not worth the transit hub” kinds of things. We are going to need to be much more imaginative getting things out. Putin may not buy into it, we may leave things in Pakistan, move them more slowly, destroy them in place just like Saigon…. etc etc, but Uzbekistan should be last on the list for “warming it up” and “looking at the geopolitical” etc etc. This regime is tainted. in decline, a remnant of Stalinist thinking, and deserves a near non involvement from us.

We never seem to see what is really black, what is grey, and what is workable. This is not one of those grey areas. We missed in Tunisia, we missed in Egypt, we will miss in Jordan, and are missing again in Uzbekistan. We weakly wave our wand at Syria, and leave the heavy lifting for the Turks-to their credit. At the same time, we go silent a la Vietnam for thirty years and five electons with Iran, never deal with Hamas,, do nothing about North Korea, and now go to Myamar. This is confused policy at each and every turn, and usually way off. Thank God for Hollywood….at least they do fantasy right.

It is just so damn hard to find anyone smiling in Uzbekistan outside the Elite dancing/strip clubs and quasi “private casino/clubs.” The mass of the population is rushing home to get away from anything which might get them in trouble and not daring to push the limits in speech from the multiple neighborhood “reporters” and Secret police district leadership. And stay off the roads and the roadblocks every ten kilometers, you will be searched without the right “pass” on your car, and forced to pay at each one, if you are not arrested. The population is very clear on this and think a lot, and would on any given Sunday just go on a wild hanging spree on these “leaders.”

Let’s not even waste our time on this one. We can’t even do enough plastic surgery on this situation to make it worth breathing on as the house of cards might come falling down any time. Clinton in the Factory was a mistake(bad investment, close it down), she is misled and not up to the job.

Uzbekistan until after the the Revolution, lets just stay away. And make clear why, and support the people of Uzbekistan right from the start and unequivocally. Karimov needs to go, and go now.

If we ever want to do the “right thing” and be seen as correct for it, here is a clear a chance for the US in Central Asia. Worth the Effort or Non Effort as may be required, but he will be gone soon in any case, be it through Jihad, or Urban revolt. He will be gone soon.

Dilshod November 19, 2011 at 3:50 am

This is an incredibly gross distortion of reality, I really don’t know and care about your reasons for such an exaggeration and making things out.

However, there is a value, keep doing a good job, I find it interesting to learn of Russian perceptions.

Uzbek November 19, 2011 at 6:11 am

Dilshod, aren’t you an SNB agent, by the way, planted by them to monitor independent media and make comments to confuse people, especially those who don’t understand the region? (For those who don’t know what SNB is it is basically former KGB). I sense that type of mentality from your posts and I am local, you can’t fool me.

Boris is right, people rush to get home, aka further away from anything that can get them in trouble. This is why you don’t see people out in cafes that much, there is no nightlife to speak of, everything happens behind the close d doors in Tashkent. But I don’t agree on one thing with Boris Sizmore. I think engagement with Karimov’s regime is a must. The West cannot wait and see until he goes. They have to engage him and slowly eat away at his advantages. Not engaging him means the West will forsake people of Uzbekistan.

mark November 15, 2011 at 7:04 pm

“After all, for a little love from the West, Qaddafi gave up his nuclear program and suspended his support for terrorism.”

“A little love”? How about the credible threat of total annihilation the likes of which Mr. Qaddafi was no doubt watching take place in Iraq.

Dolkun November 15, 2011 at 7:50 pm

Maybe human rights activists, with a few exceptions provoked into a reaction because the most prolific blogger on Central Asia appears to be positioning himself as foreign policy advisor to Herman Cain, don’t want to engage with you because you selectively quote their work and twist their words to dismiss their arguments, or more simply, state that they don’t have arguments.

Or maybe because after spending a few days in Kyrgyzstan and talking to people via a “handler,” (a term that I’d never heard used in that country — I think you just introduced a new profession faster than USAID ever did), you become more of a bleeding heart than anyone at HRW could dream of. Maybe they’re just waiting for you to visit another Central Asian country and then you’ll join their ranks … Oh wait, I forgot, you also taught English in Karaganda.

Joshua Foust November 15, 2011 at 9:33 pm

“Dolkun,” I’ll just say this much: it takes real balls to accuse a guy who just three weeks ago wrote an article harshly critical of Herman Cain of “positioning himself as foreign policy advisor [sic] to Herman Cain,” and then to follow that up by criticizing my complete transparency about my history, education, and experiences, all while hiding behind a pseudonym like a coward.

Real balls, indeed.

Stefan G November 16, 2011 at 6:55 am

So, I think that by picking holes in your transparent “history, education, and experiences” (would you like a medal, would you?), Dolkun is making the point that you need to get off your goddamn high horse and pissing all over other people’s work and views. Your little jaunt to Osh only proved what most people here probably suspected all along – that your insights are fundamentally banal and based on hunches gleaned from some limited mucking in with the locals whose language you don’t even speak.
Is this nasty? Yes, probably. But, hell, absolutely no worse than what you feel for some reason entitled to dole out yourself. I swear to God, sometimes reading this site feels like watching goddamned Bill O’Reilly. My fault for returning, I guess.

Uzbek November 19, 2011 at 5:41 am

@ Stefan G,
In defense of Joshua Foust: I will say that his insights are right on the money and are impartial. I say this as a person who is born and lived almost 30 years in Uzbekistan and has both Uzbek and Kyrgyz friends and also has personal ties and interest in the region. I have also been following the local the media all along. I find Joshua’s insights closer to reality than Kyrgyz or Uzbek local media that are fueled by the interests of one group or another and cannot be impartial and afraid to step on somebody’s toe’s. Joshua Foust has that luxury of being neutral and has delivered a great report nothing short of any big newspaper. So I am going to ask you to stop with all this nonsense, sir!

Turgai November 18, 2011 at 5:52 am

Joshua, using a pseudonym does not makes one a coward. Then lots of commentators here are. Some of us do have personal ties to the region and therefore do take certain risks –which makes it a matter of responsibility rather than cowardice.

Dilshod November 18, 2011 at 11:01 am

Josh, please, do me a favor, don’t throw jewels …, as long as folks believe it’s ok to go ad hominem, don’t waste your energy. Talk to discuss arguments and not to defend yourself. Peace.

Uzbek November 19, 2011 at 5:59 am

@ Dolkun,
I don’t know what it has to do with Joshua’s article. I mean if he is trying to make a progress in his professional career using his experience in Central Asia, by all means, why this has to be interpreted as a bad thing? Central Asia is pretty isolated part of the world and it is not like we have a huge expat communnity or Western businesses lined up at our doors. Joshua is one of many few who stepped on the plate. Also, it is not a secret that majority of Americans think that -stans people are a bunch of AK-47 wielding, “Allah Akbar” chanting, long-bearded religious fanatics with a suicide bomber mindset. And of of this misunderstanding is because Uzbekistan rhymes with Pakistan or Afghanistan. We need more Joshuas who can contribute to breaking this type of misunderstanding by providing articles and insights that reflect reality and not tainted by any other agenda.

Catherine Fitzpatrick November 16, 2011 at 12:38 am

Who says Qaddafi gave up his support for terrorism? Perhaps overt support, but there were reports that Libya continued to supply terrorists for Al Qaeda in Iraq. I have no knowledge to believe or disbelieve this, but I think skepticism about Libya’s claim that it gave up support of terrorism is in order.

I think the human rights industry indeed will have a very hard time trying to get the Security Council to ever mount a “responsibility to protect” operation ever again. Already some countries are talking about “responsibility while protecting” to try to address the large numbers of civilians killed during the Libya operations, said to be more than Qaddafi was killing or would have killed. Of course, like the “frozen genocide” theory about NATO’s bombings of Kosovo, we will never know if the Serbs would have killed more or less, and here, too, we don’t know if talks had been pursued longer, Qaddafi might have stepped down. Doesn’t look like it. Meanwhile, you’re indulging in that American exceptionalism again, as if every world situation is controlled by Washington and therefore fixable by Washington, On Libya, te Arab League, for the first time in its life, stepped up and urged SC action on a situation of massive killings of civilians. Russia also stepped up. You would never get that “coalition of the willing” around resolution 1973 again, but it was there at the time and should own this as much as anybody.

The problem with your cynical rapping of the West and Human Rights Watch for not letting Qaddafi be “rewarded” for giving up his nuclear program and ostensibly ending support for terrorism is that you can’t concede that sometimes, the world has to find rewards for bad people — but not offer them forever. Like the offer to take Sudan off the terrorism list if they let the South secede peacefully. Dictators never stay “bought” so it’s merely the sort of “realism” stop-gap that the West has to devise. Why aren’t you for devising such stop-gaps? Again, regimes change. That’s what they do.

You seem to have mounted a theory by which human rights groups — or anybody — can never call for a bad regime to change or be overthrown because it would open up too many cans of hypocrisy of ineffectiveness. So…what’s your plan for all those people who were being put into mass graves by Saddam and Qaddafi? It’s easy to oppose war — I do — but I want to do more than that, and it’s not unrealistic to call for it.

I’m sure Karimov is more worried about the image of the Middle East dictators toppling WITHOUT US interference than he is worried about the demise of Qaddafi. He probably understands the limits of American influence and power better than you.

I agree that Malinowski’s chumming around with the rebels and endorsing their cause in the New Republic and seeming to endorse NATO strikes as a plan for human rights implementation are all actions filled with moral problems. But for other reasons (Israel) Human Rights Watch should have long ago stopped pretending that it represents the hypothetical moral “view from nowhere” and instead represents a kind of all-purpose citizens’ movement to get rid of bad things that it finds bad in the world — selectively. Perfect human rights work is not possible, and the pretense that it is only adds to the problem.

As for Uzbekistan, for the life of me I’m not getting why we can’t do more. I see VOA making much of a line at the very end of Clinton’s speech at the GM plant where she managed to smuggle in the words “human rights and democracy”

— although she pronounced the words as part of an argumentation that they should be embraced to enable Uzbekistan to take part in global markets — a utilitarian (Marxian, even) argumentation for human rights if there ever was one.

But why couldn’t Clinton call for human rights in the first line? Why couldn’t she talk about the importance of worker’s rights, creation of jobs — and then say something about child labor and cooperating with the ILO and have it come into Uzbekistan to inspect the cotton fields? Do you really think that the Uzbek foreign minister would walk off the shop floor and tell Hillary to get on the next plane? Seriously, these regimes can handle a little more human rights talk than you and others give them credit for. It is not really said for them, anyway; it is said for those who come after them.

Once again, I don’t know where you are getting this false notion that human rights groups or those concerned about human rights are saying “the outcry over reengagement with Uzbekistan is stuck at complaining Islom Karimov is a bad man, and the U.S. should never work with bad men.” Could you link please, to a single letter or blog or news article that calls for isolation of Uzbekistan and not meeting with Karimov? It’s not about that, Joshua, and you know it. It’s about public diplomacy — optics, messaging, not conferring legitimacy, being selective in engagement. It’s about sending lower-level officials. It’s about insisting that the human rights DAS come on the trips. It’s about amplifying the rhetoric and putting more statements on the Embassy website and It’s about meeting more openly with critics of the regime. It’s about a lot of little largely symbolic things like that which weren’t done with Uzbekistan.

Ever since we got the model of change that began with Gorbachev, there has always been a legitimate debate to have about how long you go on dealing with bad men, when you reward even bad men for good deeds, but when doing that for too long seals them in and prolongs their stay. And now we have even more accelerated versions of this in the Middle East, and with equally uncertain and probably not liberal outcomes and struggles for many years to come. And that will require the US to talk loud and carrying a somewhat smaller stick, and that’s ok. If we listen to you and tip-toe around because we’re fearful of being hypocrites or upsetting autocrats, we will have these people way longer than we need to.

Dolkun November 16, 2011 at 5:37 am

I appreciate the compliment, and I’m sorry that I was not familiar enough with your body of work to know your views on Herman Cain.

I simply find it ironic that you blanket accuse human rights activists, many if not most of whom have spent years in the region, speak local languages, have relevant graduate and post-graduate degrees and spend their time searching for facts of being out of touch with reality. While I agree that human rights activists tend not to subscribe to the Realist School, it’s a self-serving fiction to paint them as being out of touch. I think it’s a lot easier to portray “the world as you wish it would be” when you are a dabbler.

I also find it ironic that given the frequency with which you either make mistakes that reflect your lack of knowledge, you nevertheless seem to take verbose pleasure in tearing down the work of others.

Sorry for the ad hominem, but I am responding, albeit indirectly, to your question of why human rights activists may be disturbingly silent, that is, on your blog.

Joshua Foust November 16, 2011 at 8:30 am


Apologize all you want, your comment is reflective of a gross ignorance about this blog and this topic that is very germaine to your theorizing about why the human rights people are silent. I’ve engaged several, at prominent organizations, about the silence on alternatives. One admitted to me he doesn’t have one, he just thinks working with Uzbekistan is a bad idea.

Okay, fine, we all admit working with Uzbekistan has costs. In fact, if you go back and read my previous posts on this — you know, developing the background you say I lack to discuss the topic — you’ll see explicit acknowledgment that Uzbekistan should be a bad country to work with but in the regional and political context we face now it is actually a least bad choice.

That’s a different matter than pouting about “kisses for Karimov.”

And I stand by my argument that human rights activists are out of touch. It is not a function of their local knowledge, experience, or language skills. In fact, if you notice, I’ve never once criticized those things or suggested they are unimportant. Rather, I am criticizing the tactic of judging individual countries on a narrow set of guidelines — in this case, Uzbekistan on its human rights record, when Uzbekistan is really part of a much larger ecosystem of countries, systems, organizations, politics, and economics. And the human rights community is very bad at incorporating that larger ecosystem into its commentaries on Uzbekistan.

This is a critique of analysis, not intent or motivation. Like a lot of people uncomfortable with my calling out these groups for being shortsighted, you’ve strayed into ad hominem when I did not. That is very telling.

Nathan Hamm November 16, 2011 at 9:04 am

Dolkun, without seeking to take sides myself at the moment or claiming to accurately represent Josh’s point, I read “out of touch” as being both correct and incorrect. I think that you’re absolutely right that many of these human rights activists are very in touch with life in the region and how the machine of the state affects people. Where I think it might be fair to say they are not as in touch is in the realm of policy, especially strategic policy. (On the other side of things, it’s fair to say that the people who make and execute policy are fairly out of touch with what’s happening in the region or the long-term implications of their decisions.)

Dolkun November 16, 2011 at 10:23 am

I can certainly agree with that. Human rights activists focus on, wait for it, human rights. They try to convince governments that a) promoting rights is a worthwhile policy goal in itself and that b) rights matter to other agendas, such as economics and security. But they will generally have very little to say about economics and security policy in their own right. This doesn’t mean however, that they are not small r realists.

Pushing back on point A makes a person look a bit callous.

And Josh, let’s just leave it at this: You think I’m all kinds of awful. And I think there’s hope for you yet, as I saw a glimmer of humanity break through your cynicism after just a single trip to Kyrgyzstan. Let’s hope you make it to Uzbekistan some day. I bet you’d even get a visa.

Joshua Foust November 16, 2011 at 11:14 am


See there you go with all sorts of unfounded assumptions again. Stop, please. For your sake.

You can define my humanity however you want, but to assume that criticizing Human Rights Watch means I don’t care about Uzbeks or Uzbekistan is just mendacious and uncalled for. This exchange is over.

Dolkun November 16, 2011 at 6:37 pm

Sure, for my sake.

Nathan Hamm November 16, 2011 at 11:16 am

I don’t disagree with you. I am glad that there is a dedicated community of activists to shine light on abuses in the region. That said (and speaking abstractly), when they pitch policies, it should be fair to critique their arguments from a strategic policy perspective without the assumption that this disregards human rights concerns. I don’t see what’s unfair with pointing out that there are realities they aren’t taking into consideration in their analyses. I get it’s not their day job, so it’s no personal failing on their part. But then again, it’s not their day job.

Dilshod November 16, 2011 at 6:26 am

I always had a suspicion that sodomizing a human being is an act of ultimate justice bringing to the very essence of humanity, in other words treat others the way you want to be treated. That was grossly overlooked by Allied Powers in 1945 when they failed to grill half of Germany. But now we can be really proud of revolutionaries who burnt kids alive in Osh and stabbed the wounded in Libya. Mr Malinowski, am I following the line of your argument? That in order to become free one needs to make himself free from others?

Catherine Fitzpatrick November 17, 2011 at 3:22 am

Re: “Rather, I am criticizing the tactic of judging individual countries on a narrow set of guidelines — in this case, Uzbekistan on its human rights record, when Uzbekistan is really part of a much larger ecosystem of countries, systems, organizations, politics, and economics. And the human rights community is very bad at incorporating that larger ecosystem into its commentaries on Uzbekistan.”

But that’s what human rights groups do, and that’s ok to do. Military organizations mainly look at countries in terms of military strategy. Economic organizations mainly look at economics, etc. Governments have to assess all this data and their own reporting streams and come up with complex policies, and that’s ok.

If the human rights community began incorporating your geopolitical concerns, and cultural realities, etc. etc. into their assessments, they would be political parties or partisan NGOs, not human rights groups. And that’s what David Rieff, for example, in his writings, seems to suggest that they should do — give up the fiction and become political movements. And I suggest, too, that given how politicized they *have* become on any number of countries (Israel, Russia, Saudi Arabia) that they should just in fact morph into those political organizations with a conscience that in fact they’d like to be, and be done with it. Freedom House set the tone for this 50 years ago, and they have respectibility now as a monitoring organization and a democracy-promotion organization precisely because they don’t pretend to be an entirely neutral human rights applying machine like Human Rights Watch does.

Human rights groups continue to hold to the ideal of perfect and balanced human rights monitoring and defending, and it isn’t the worst dream to have. But having set that aspiration for yourself, ideally, you can’t start going around and saying, “This country gets a pass on their human rights violations because they have a culture of subserviance and aren’t very democratic as a people” (see how bad that idea instantly gets?!) or “This country gets a pass because they’ve had decades of bad crops and bad weather and are landlocked” or “This country gets a pass because it is newly-independent and surrounded by hostile big neighbours.” Human rights standards are universal, and they have to be invoked universally in the ideal project of human rights monitoring. Of course, human rights groups are politicized given their prioritization — they work on Uzbekistan, but not Tajikistan, etc. But that’s their choice as free associations.

Aside from these obvious points, there is a larger philosophy here that you should study, and that is the one devised and articulated by Andrei Sakharov and others in this region like Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik for the last 40 years. And that is that international security cannot be achieved without human rights; that economic prosperity cannot be achieved without human rights, and so on. That putting geopolitical exigencies like detente or peace or the NDN or whatever simply doesn’t work when you are dealing with tyrants.

Turgai November 18, 2011 at 5:38 am

Thanks for sharing this Joshua. Somehow, I don’t see Karimov (who, unlike Kadhafi, is not a soldier nor a mercurial visionary but an apparatchik) try to wage a desperate guerrilla war along with his daughters, loyal troops and mercenaries. If Karimov doesn’t depart for hell naturally and succeeded in a Niazov-Berdimuhammedov mould, he’s more likely to end like Ceausescu: a combination of messy but still local social unrest somewhere in the province, and an internal coup (swift or bloody, it depends) in the capital in which he is deposed by his own entourage.

Also, even towards the end, Kadhafi did still had some sort of base and backing (tribal/clanic, loyal armed forces) ready to fight for him, which allowed him to hold on for months after the start of the revolution. Will Karimov have this? Will there be segments of the population and the army (conscripts!) ready to fight to the death for him? Perhaps, like Ceaucescu’s Securitate, parts of Karimov’s Milli Havsizlik Kizmati and some security officers who know they are toast, will.

Uzbek November 18, 2011 at 12:10 pm

@ Turgai,

Believe me, nobody except for a handful of Karimov’s cronies will fight for him. However, he does threaten the public with civil war if they forsake the stability his regime maintains.

In Uzbekistan there is no Syria style division of the populace into two camps or Libya style tribal divisions. Bashar and Qaddafi lavished wealth and privilege on one group of population hoping that they would defend them when times get tough. Karimov can’t do this because Uzbekistan is not tribal country or religiously or otherwise divided like Syria. So Karimov doesn’t have that card. He will not stand and fight when it comes down to that – the minute he knows that things have changed irreversibly against him, he will run. He and his cronies have built an escape route for themselves to Russia and Iran. Note that both countries are a type that can shield them from international pressures to hand them over to international courts or worse yet to the new Uzbek government.

Turgai November 21, 2011 at 4:37 am

Yes, I think along the same lines. One can think about Kadhafi what one wants, but he was a fighter and a visionary who probably believed in his project (a project which I reject but that is not the question now). I mean, he could easily have emptied the coffers and gone into comfortable exile to Venezuela or the one or two African countries that actually proposed him a place to go to. But he did not. IAK and his cronies, if not killed, will likely run, after trying to set the country ablaze.

It’s the first time that I hear about the Iran escape route. Also, I do no take Russia for granted as well. Belarus is more likely. Or what about Switzerland and the EU? 😉

Uzbek November 21, 2011 at 11:36 am

While Switzerland and the EU do sound romantic Karimov and his crew know better not to flee to those countries. Because there is a rule of law in those countries and the hand of justice will reach Karimov and cronies over there and they will be handed over to international courts. They will choose a country where they will be protected from international courts, it is the usual suspects, Russia, Iran, Belorussia, as you mentioned.

Yes, Iran is an escape route for the Uzbek officials. The former police chief and the current one too, have bought land and built huge mansions in Iran. The minute the regime falls, they will just move there and live their lives in relative comfort.

Turgai November 22, 2011 at 3:38 am

OK it’s hard to predict. Yet I would have not too much illusions about the so-called rule of law in the EU. Scumbags and nutcases like Jean-Claude Duvalier (Haïti) and Jean-Bédel Bokassa (Central African Republic) both spent years in exile in France, for instance, after they were flicked out and they were never brought in front of a court.

True, one can argue that this was still the Cold War and before the ICC came into existence. But there are people and groups in the EU who prefer Karimov and his daughters to live in quiet retirment rather than to appear in the ICC, of only because this sort of creatures can start to talk too much (‘why me, and not so-and-so-who-did-this-and-this).

And believe me, in terms of dubious collaboration and business with the regime, some political and business circles in Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Belgium could get VERY embarassed. 🙂

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