How Not to Promote A Report

by Joshua Foust on 12/15/2011 · 2 comments

Human Rights Watch has released a new report about abuses in Uzbekistan and it’s thorough and detailed:

Uzbekistan has not kept its promises to stop torture in its criminal justice system, including electric shocks and asphyxiation, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Safeguards to halt the practice that were announced with fanfare have not been put into effect. Western governments seeking closer ties with the authoritarian Central Asian government for strategic reasons have all but ignored the abuses.

The problem with the report is not the data is contains, but rather how HRW is framing it: in terms of western, and especially the U.S.’s, policies in the region. Considering the genuine care HRW has for the fate of ordinary Uzbeks, they owe it to those Uzbeks to highlight their plight without wading into the messy politics of U.S. regional strategy that distract from their fundamental mission of documenting rights abuses. The framing of Uzbek abuses in light of U.S. and EU strategy makes it sound like Uzbek rights only matter in terms of those strategies, and not on their own merits. I have no idea why they’d choose to kneecap their own advocacy like in the initial dissemination stages like that.

Moreover there is a weird schism between what HRW argue in their report and what their own analysts argue elsewhere. The report is scathing in describing the current U.S. push as transactional: “[T]his policy of ‘engagement without strings’ is a short-term strategy that has compounded Uzbekistan’s deepening human rights crisis,” the report argues. Yet just last month, HRW’s Washington Director argued explicitly that Washington should stay short term and transaction in its dealings with the regime in Tashkent. What do they want? Crossed arms?

Furthermore, HRW reached out to journalists who have not done them favors in promoting the report. Salon’s Justin Elliott peppered his piece highlighting the report with so many bizarre statements — “the ongoing debate about the human rights implications of leaving Afghanistan has rarely considered the secondary effects of the status quo” — that I’m left wondering if Elliott did even basic Internet searches before writing his piece. The discussion of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has been dominated by the ‘secondary effects’ of the human rights picture in the region (and has been the subject of very angry, very vigorous, debate on this blog).

HRW also seems to have reached out to well-known Uzbek analyst Ahmed Rashid. His piece hyping the report is similarly filled with bizarre and unsupportable statements about the entire region: Tajikistan is ” emerging from a five year civil war” (yes, in 1997), that Karimov’s disbelief in the rule of law is what inspires every other tyrant in the region to ignore it as well, and so on. The rest of his piece is filled with inarguable pleasantries anyone with Wikipedia could write. I suppose the venue counts, so maybe that’s a good thing for HRW’s dissemination strategy.

The problem with what Human Rights Watch is doing with this whole process is that it’s unnecessary. Things in Uzbekistan are bad enough, and current policies have enough problems, that veering into the shallowness, fact-fudging, and occasional leaps of fancy that pepper this discussion detracts substantially from the meat of HRW’s argument. Saying the West is silent on Uzbekistan’s abuses is not exactly true. Claiming U.S. officials are silent about abuses is not exactly true, either. One can argue — and HRW have! — that officials are not vocal enough, but to say they’re silent is just misleading. It distracts from their argument.

Unfortunately, there seems to be something of an Uzbekistan-Tourettes when it comes to talking about policy in the region. Human Rights Watch recorded something horrible in 2002, when they documented a prisoner being boiled alive in a political prison. Yet that one, horrific event continues to be recounted as if it happens today — simply because it is the most horrific example of abuse people can think of. This is tantamount to describing U.S. detainee policy through the 2003 fatal beatings at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq — yes, it happened, and it was horrifying, but that is not the daily reality of U.S. detainee policy. To pretend it is is simply dishonest.

Nevertheless, because Uzbekistan’s nine-year old boiling alive case is still hyped so prominently by human rights groups, when journalists ask questions about that nine-year old incident those same human rights groups use it as proof that Uzbekistan is bad and therefore America has poor moral authority. It’s circular logic of the worst sort, and it distracts – yet again – from the horrifying reality of daily life in Uzbekistan, which Human Rights Watch actually does a good job in documenting.

This inexplicable habit of lapsing into hyperbole practically infests discourse on Uzbekistan. Just today, Eurasianet ran an article about a discussion within the Pentagon over whether or not to sell excess military equipment to Uzbekistan during the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Up top is a picture of a B2 stealth bomber, which a caption helpfully explains “would not be among items sent to Uzbekistan” (thanks, guys!). The article doesn’t quite manage to quote anyone involved in the discussion, but rather an official who has nothing to do with it, and then pivots on this unrelated statement to imply that he is representing a U.S. policy of selling weapons to Uzbekistan. (As friend-of-the-blog Gulliver pointed out via Twitter, this arrangement would be administered by the Department of State, and not the Department of Defense, anyway—Eurasianet did not even get the principle agency right.) At its most charitable interpretation, such reporting is slipshod; at its worst, it is outright misleading, deliberately blurring the lines between trucks and pre-fabricated buildings and computers and a freaking stealth bomber and saying it’s all evidence the U.S. wants to suppress Uzbeks. This is pure insanity.

Lost in all of this unfortunate hyperbole about Uzbekistan is a sober discussion of the truly bad choices available to policymakers there. The last six years of moralist hectoring from afar has not produced any noticeable change in the country. Moreover, officials are searching for a way to disentangle themselves from Pakistan, which let us not forget is not only also a notorious human rights abuser (here’s an upsetting video of Pakistani Rangers shooting an unarmed man in Karachi, then laughing as he bleeds out and stops moving), but also a sponsor of international terrorism and a global proliferator of nuclear weapons. As a policymaker, if your choice is Pakistan or Uzbekistan, which would you choose? And if Uzbekistan is so horrible a place as to be unacceptable under any circumstances, then what is your alternative?

This is the larger political and strategic context to the discussion about Uzbekistan that groups like Human Rights Watch get wrong. Plain old wrong. They do not understand it, and cannot argue against it in a way policymakers will find persuasive. That is why their insistence on couching their reports in such terms is so puzzling — it takes a respectable act of documentation and turns it into crass political theater. That they wind up exaggerating their political points to do so then discredits their otherwise good work in documenting the pervasive and horrific abuses within Uzbekistan.

They couldn’t undermine themselves more if they tried. It is a real loss.

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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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Don Bacon December 15, 2011 at 10:20 pm

Choosing between a nation of 28 million and another of 188 million with nukes, the latter soon to become the most populous Muslim nation, and with a vital interest in Afghanistan, and twice the former’s size, should not be difficult.

Thomas Paine December 19, 2011 at 9:29 pm

This year has been particularly bad for dictators! And Josh is rubbing it in!

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