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.)