Child Labor and U.S. Military Cooperation in Uzbekistan
Are the U.S.'s supply lines to Afghanistan threatened by negative U.S. government reporting on child labor in Uzbekistan? That's the contention of a two-part analysis in Jamestown's Eurasia Daily Monitor, which will raise eyebrows among those who worry that the U.S.'s military cooperation with Uzbekistan is coming at the expense of human rights in that country. By the end of this year fully 75 percent of the U.S.'s (non-lethal) military cargo will be shipped to Afghanistan via the Northern Distribution Network through the former Soviet Union, and almost all of that goes through Uzbekistan. Or will it?...
The importance of the NDN to the Afghanistan war effort cannot be overstated given the constant interdiction of supplies through Pakistan by the Taliban and its Pakistani supporters in recent years. However, this fragile US-Uzbek relationship appears to be on the verge of possible collapse due to arcane and illogical actions by the State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (G-TIP).
What that office has done is to ding Uzbekistan for using forced child labor in the annual cotton harvest. The author, Umida Hashimova, argues that this doesn't strictly fall under the rubric of trafficking in persons, and that the State Department thus "has taken up the cause of a number of anti-Uzbekistan NGOs and possibly competing cotton exporters to vilify Uzbekistan over the continuation of the Soviet-era policy of mobilizing students and government officials to assist in annual agricultural harvests."
I'll leave aside the argument on the question of child labor, except to note that Hashimova is likely correct to note that Uzbekistan is being unfairly singled out when other countries, notably Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, do the same thing. She's on shakier ground when she argues that "children in labor has a cultural aspect" in Uzbekistan, given the evidence that the cotton industry in Uzbekistan is controlled by government-connected elites who benefit from forced labor and artificially low set prices to make huge profits on the international market. The "cultural aspect" here seems like a fig leaf used to justify this predatory practice. And suggesting that "competing cotton exporters" are behind this, without showing any evidence, seems just like conspiracy-mongering.
Anyway, regardless of the merits of the argument, is this move, as she warns, "likely to result in a pull-back by the Uzbek government from its effective work against real issues of trafficking, and even possibly, denial of use of its territory in the Northern Distribution Network... due to either misinterpretation or excessive influence of political activists in the policies of the State Department’s G-TIP office."? You wouldn't think so, given how insignificant a report like this is, published deep in the U.S. bureaucracy, compared with Karimov's eagerness to tamp down the threat of radical Islamism emanating from Afghanistan and to curry favor with the U.S. as a bulwark against Russia.
But it is nevertheless possible that this could cause some sort of rupture, given that Uzbekistan's president Islam Karimov reportedly threatened to cut off the NDN because the State Department gave a human rights award to an Uzbekistan dissident. Should that be a reason not to badger Uzbekistan on child labor? In any event, we'll have to wait and see if there is any fallout from this in Tashkent.
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.
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