Joshua Kucera is absolutely right:
This is a difficult needle to thread, but Washington has so far largely succeeded. The U.S. has kept the supply lines running while compromising little on its principles. The yearly State Department human rights reports have remained consistently critical, even as military cooperation has blossomed. Human rights advocates in Uzbekistan — a small, beleaguered community — still say that, for the most part, they feel like the U.S. Embassy is an ally.
But this balance is difficult to maintain, and lately there have been signs that America may be wavering. The defense budget authorization act passed on Dec. 15 by Congress removed restrictions on military aid to Uzbekistan that had been in place since 2004 because of the country’s odious human rights record. Asked about that decision, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said there had been “progress” on human rights and political freedoms, which, while not a realistic assessment of the situation, technically speaking is true.
Well, maybe except for that last bit. Assessing the human rights situation in Uzbekistan is a tricky business. No one argues with the very basic fact that the Karimov regime is one of the most horrific rights abusers on the planet. But how can Secretary Clinton be “technically true” in saying that there’s been some progress on human rights, while also not being realistic?
Josh and I bickered a bit about this over twitter (his feed, @joshuakucera, is worth following). He thinks the rights situation in Uzbekistan has gotten worse, and bases that on his trips to country, as well as conversations with activists and journalists who live there.
Here’s the thing: Josh very well could be right that activists and journalists think the rights situation has gotten worse. It certainly has for them, but has it gotten worse for ordinary Uzbeks? That’s a much harder question to answer.
The challenge in making rights assessments in a place like Uzbekistan is the terrible quality of information on hand. No one can collect data systemically, which leaves a researcher or analyst at the whims of the few sources he or she can get to talk. That’s why, for example, Nathan Hamm can find Uzbeks who think things have gotten better (though he clarifies they usually mean economically instead of freedom), while Josh can find people who think things have gotten worse.
Because there is little concrete data in the major human rights assessments—I’m referring to Freedom House, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the State Department—we’re often left with a subjective assessment of how things are changing. There’s no question the human rights situation is worse now than it was, say, in 1991. But is it worse than, say, 2006?
Josh said so in his piece quoted above. It’s a difficult thing to argue. Few rights organizations have a presence there anymore, which makes data collection extremely difficult. HRW focuses strongly on the plight of rights activists, which obscures the daily existence of ordinary Uzbeks (which is not to say that the treatment of rights activists is unimportant, it’s just a terribly narrow segment of Uzbek society). Amnesty hasn’t issued a report since 2010, but even that was a frankly generic set of complaints about the Karimov regime that’s remained relatively unchanged since 2004 or so. The State Department’s extensive human rights report for 2010 noted many of the same horrors we’ve seen in previous years, with some tiny, marginal (and largely symbolic) progress in a few limited areas.
Maybe we have to wait for the 2011 year in review reports to start really saying if there’s been a rights degradation or improvement, but my feeling is the rights situation in Uzbekistan is largely unchanged and will probably remain so for the immediate future. A few high profile cases (which are, to repeat, absolutely horrifying and unforgivable) do not really say a lot about the broad situation in the country. Most of the problems that State and HRW document concern violations of due process, religious persecution, and police brutality—horrors that do not often get encapsulated by the majority of the vocal activists westerners usually focus on, but which do affect normal Uzbeks. For them, things don’t seem all that much worse or better, which makes assessing the morality of U.S. engagement all the more difficult.
The thing is, the current U.S. plan to engage with Tashkent—hype about not selling B2 bombers notwithstanding—is a strictly transactional arrangement. I’d be surprised if it lasts much beyond 2014, whatever the New Silk Road talk you hear from the State Department. Noting that it’s not a particularly happy choice, as Josh does, is perfectly cromulent. The U.S. has no good choices in the region, because we don’t have any leverage over these regimes but we do need them to get out of Afghanistan. But even while we note the paucity of choice, can we ask what else there might be?
I don’t know of anything. I remain convinced that, while Uzbekistan is not a good choice for engagement, it is a better choice than Pakistan (and the only real alternative anyway). So while we should always remain aware of the abuses of the countries the government must work through to achieve bigger goals (and winding down the war in Afghanistan really is a bigger, more important goal), we should also keep in mind that there’s really nothing else they could do.
Final thought: if the rights situation really did degrade during the last five years of U.S. disengagement, does it naturally follow that U.S. re-engagement would lead to further degradation? I don’t follow that logic, but it seems to be the assumption behind much of the carping. Maybe a commenter will patronizingly explain how I have it all wrong and should stop shilling for the Defense Department?
Nah, I wouldn’t be that lucky.