Leveraging Relations

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by Nathan Hamm on 1/4/2012

In a EurasiaNet article, Human Rights Watch’s Steve Swerdlow is quoted saying,

“Their willingness to go public, litigate the matter, and continue to speak out to groups like us despite the risks makes this case unique in Uzbekistan and in some sense proves the value of challenging the Uzbek government more openly.”

The case to which Swerdlow refers is the horrific 2009 case in which Rayhon Soatova was raped by up to a dozen officers while in police custody. (More on this case can be found in HRW’s recent superb report on Uzbekistan, “No One Left to Witness.”) In both this and a similar case, human rights activists say, officials surprisingly admitted the fault of the police. While the admission is of little consequence — rapes in custody will likely continue to occur — Elena Urlaeva and Surat Ikramov, two activists interviewed about the cases both say they think the US, EU, and UN pressure helped bring about the admission.

While it is good that warmer and more regular ties between the West and Uzbekistan can lead to more positive resolution of specific cases, it only does just that. Abuses will continue because the system churns on regardless of a very rare official apology or exceedingly rare prosecution of a police officer or local official.

The difficulty for policymakers in trying to encourage improvement of Uzbekistan’s human rights record has always been precisely that Karimov’s government will not engage in systematic reform and believes that solitary, symbolic acts suffice. Given this and the overall track record of trying to overhaul human rights abusers, the effort seems eternally bound to fail.

Change ultimately must come from within; from hammering away at the government’s machinery of oppression by “challenging the Uzbek government more openly,” as Swerdlow puts it. But to what extent do the US, EU, and UN act as an anvil in the way that Urlaeva and Ikramov describe? I believe the pressure they bring does, to some extent, provide a hard surface against which pressure from Uzbek citizens can press their government. It’s unclear, as the Uzbek government is sometimes surprisingly responsive to non-political demands from the public (turn the gas back on, don’t make us use cash registers, etc.), and it may be that these two cases are “easier” in which to admit fault. Nevertheless, is this perhaps the best, even the only, way for the West to encourage meaningful reform in Uzbekistan? If so, is there any way to equip and embolden Uzbeks while still keeping the lines of communication open?

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Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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