UNICEF’s Children’s Rights Window Dressing

Post image for UNICEF’s Children’s Rights Window Dressing

by Nathan Hamm on 4/11/2012 · 10 comments

UzDaily carries a story today on cooperation between UNICEF and Uzbekistan’s parliament on children’s rights. The parliament’s Committee on Democratic Institutions, NGOs, and Self-governing Bodies met with UNICEF, MPs, government ministries, and a handful of NGOs to discuss “strengthening the protective environment around children, in particular, those who are at greatest risk and need protection.”

UNICEF’s full program for Uzbekistan can be found at its (generally content-free) website. UzDaily describes UNICEF’s work with the parliament as working to ensure that Uzbekistan’s legislation is in harmony with international conventions, treaties, and norms regarding the protection of children’s rights. UNICEF may very well do some great things in Uzbekistan, but harmonizing legislation is not one of them.

Uzbekistan’s laws are not the problem. In fact, were one only to look at the laws, one might conclude Uzbekistan’s children are doing fine in certain areas. Regarding child labor, for example, Uzbekistan has adopted legislation that strictly prohibits children from working except for under specific circumstances and clearly outlaws the use of forced labor. The government trumpets the existence of these laws as evidence that it is meeting its obligations to International Labor Organization conventions. The Federation of Trade Unions, Farmers’ Association, and Labor Ministry last year issued a joint statement on the inadmissibility of child labor in agriculture in which they said that Uzbekistan’s laws and joint efforts like theirs revealed foreign media reports of forced child labor as a plot to bring low Uzbekistan’s reputation. Everyone knows, however, that forced child labor is how cotton gets harvested (and sowed… and weeded…).

Like so much else not only in Uzbekistan, but throughout the former Soviet Union, the fruits of the Uzbek parliament’s cooperation with UNICEF are an example of form trumping substance — the state pretending it is not abusing society because the law says it cannot. Meanwhile, because a well-known, respected international organization paid a visit to Tashkent officialdom, the government gets a chance to bolster its legitimacy in the local press.

UNICEF has historically underplayed the enormity of the problem of child labor in Uzbekistan, and it has also insisted that the ILO, not UNICEF, would be better suited to monitoring and assessing child labor in Uzbekistan. Hemming and hawing about progress on human rights, however, is usually, and should remain to the extent possible, the province of governments. Even if one disagrees with the math in the equation, there is at least a logic to the US, UK, and other western nations making deals with Uzbekistan to pursue larger strategic objectives in the region. But for UNICEF, how does it add up? It did do a nationwide assessment of child labor in Uzbekistan in 2011, but the issue still is not really on the agenda for the organization. Meanwhile, it helps the government of Uzbekistan make the case that it is moving forward on child labor issues.

That is no trivial matter, especially if you want western governments to take a harsher line with Uzbekistan. The State Department’s 2011 Trafficking in Persons narrative for Uzbekistan cites the Uzbek government’s willingness to allow UNICEF to conduct the child labor survey as one of the few positives in the country’s record. Uzbekistan was rated as a Tier II Watchlist country for the fourth consecutive year in the 2011 report. The way that the Trafficking in Persons legislation is written, ratings are not based solely on static conditions; trajectory matters. So, small things like the existence of a written plan to improve, like Uzbekistan had last year, can matter more than numbers of cases. While sanctions would probably be waived (again), Uzbekistan would be livid were it to receive the Tier 3 rating. Uzbekistan’s government will likely point to things like legislative cooperation with UNICEF, UNICEF monitoring, and its even newer and more improved action plan to REALLY eliminate child labor to make the case that it should not be dropped to Tier 3 in the 2012 report because there simply is no tangible progress on child labor in practice.

(Tangentially: H&M, a supporter of the campaign to boycott Uzbek cotton, sells UNICEF key rings in Sweden, specifically mentioning that the organization promotes children’s rights in Uzbekistan. It would be better off giving money to the ILO or the Environmental Justice Foundation if it was really interested in doing something other than cause marketing.)

Photo by Flickr user Chris Shervey

Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

This post was written by...

– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

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.

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use


Arkan al-Ifranji April 12, 2012 at 12:48 am

Does anyone needs further case about the worthlessness of UN structures? Fact is, the UN or at least UN organisations have a tremendous track record of buttering up dodgy regimes such as the one in Uzbekistan, with UNDP being by far and large the very worst in that field. Yet what do you want, with country offices filled to the roof with nephews, former mistresses and cronies of government officials?

Metin April 12, 2012 at 3:25 am

UN structures might assist a developing country to reform, so they aren’t useless. However, if an organization like UNDP in Uzbekistan is corrupt ‘by far and large’, then media has to act and illuminate the problem. Surely, those who fund international agencies won’t be happy to see their money being spent in wrong way. Problems can be solved and international structures may remain relevant.

Darnish April 17, 2012 at 7:05 am

It’s not that simple. UNDP does a lot of good things in Uzbekistan but, in a lot of ways, its hands are tied by the Uzbek government. Should UNDP protest and start publicly and actively criticize the regime, it will be quickly kicked out the country like UNHCR was or any other NGO that became too “prudent.” As a result, a lot of people will lose their job and a lot of projects in the regions will need to be stopped. In diplomacy, you have to pick your battle and prioritize.

Nathan Hamm April 17, 2012 at 8:47 am

But these organizations aren’t engaged in diplomacy in the normal sense. They have missions. I’m sympathetic to the argument that achieving a limited list of goals is better than nothing, but a lot of UN organizations seem to accomplish more than a kindergarten for the international community in which everyone gets a lot of gold stars to take home.

Getting back to the case of UNICEF in particular, what’s the point? Unless the point is to just fund some jobs — which could probably be done easier and at lower cost in other ways — why should they bother making compromises for access if they’re going to ignore the largest state-caused issue affecting children?

Metin April 12, 2012 at 3:07 am

windows dressing or not, the fact that government started talking about the problem is a progress. It would be good if UNICEF or others would work with the government on prevention of forced adult labor (like doctors, school teachers, etc) in cotton fields as well.

Will April 12, 2012 at 7:52 am

I don’t believe in progress unless the government takes action. If it really wants to abolish child labor, that can be done instantly. There were times when college students were made exempt from cotton picking. All the action plans and cooperation with international organizations to eliminate child labor is to prove that the government is working on the problem. I have to agree with Nathan here, this is nothing but a window dressing of the problem.

Nathan Hamm April 12, 2012 at 12:06 pm

I agree with where you’re going with this comment, but I think it’s important to keep in mind that the government is avoiding the issues by talking about them in this way. And then they go and claim that by talking about them or coming up with new plans, they’ve made progress. It’s just lipstick on a pig.

Justin April 12, 2012 at 10:13 am

But don’t you know that Uzbekistan is very effectively abolishing child labour through its forced sterilization programme.

Brian Campbell April 14, 2012 at 4:57 am

Great piece.

The Government of Uzbekistan wants to talk about child labor because it distracts from the real issue, forced labor and forced child labor. UNICEF enables the government to do so by providing fodder for the distraction. We aren’t talking about child labor caused by poverty, we are talking about child labor caused by state command . . . this is forced labor pure and simple.

Unicef’s problem is that they refuse to admit that child labor will occur as long as there is a quota for cotton set by the government and enforced by the state apparatus. The ILO and the USG (in wikileaks) has been clear that the Uzbek government forces its citizens to labor in order to meet state quotas. Child labor will continue as long as the government controls cotton production through what the State Department called in a 2009 cable (available on wikileaks) a “state order system” of cotton production. Recently, the GOU testified before a US Government trade committee and denied that they have any forced labor.
Its hard to have any plan to solve a problem when you deny that the problem exists.

Nathan Hamm April 16, 2012 at 3:21 pm

Brian, thanks for the comment.

You’re absolutely right that this has everything to do with the way the cotton economy is structured. The state controls every step of the process and takes the profits while forcing farmers to carry the burden for costs and the public to carry the labor burden.

I cannot remember the source for this (I used it in a report for a client last year on the Uzbek cotton sector) but the profits in the non-state agricultural economy are comparatively huge. Farmers are far more efficient and prices correspond to realities of the market. I don’t know that cotton would be nearly so profitable, but getting the state out of managing every aspect of that economy is the only way to fully remove the abuses currently rampant in it.

Previous post:

Next post: