Question and Answer with Cassandra Cavanaugh, Researcher on Central Asia, Human Rights Watch, New York
US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright concluded a three-country tour of Central Asia on April 19. During stops in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, Albright focused talks with regional leaders on a variety of security-related issues, including drug trafficking, counter terrorism and border control. The Secretary of State also expressed concern about human rights conditions in the region. In connection with Albright's visit, the Central Eurasia Project spoke with Cassandra Cavanaugh, a researcher on Central Asia for Human Rights Watch in New York, about human rights conditions in Uzbekistan. The text of the interview follows:
CEP: Last month, Human Rights Watch issued a report documenting the government crackdown on human rights defenders in Uzbekistan. Please describe the campaign.
Cavanaugh: The report documents that this is the first time that human rights defenders are being convicted on the same charges that those they have been helping defend have faced. Overwhelmingly, they are [being charged as, or threatened with charges of belonging to] independent Islamic "extremists." Mahbuba Kasymova was convicted of harboring a criminal and concealing a crime in both cases, charges related to a purported member of an Islamic group. Ismoil Adylov was convicted of membership in a banned "terrorist" group, the Hizb ut-Tahrir. The prime target of the crackdown has been the Independent Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan. Members have been harassed, followed, called in for interrogations by the police, threatened with criminal charges, and beaten, in some cases quite severely. In the case of the group's chairman, Mikhail Ardzinov, the authorities arbitrarily confiscated his property, including documentation from 1996 and the organization's computer and fax, right down to his one good suit, in a clear attempt to halt his work.
The international community has to focus on this campaign now because, for the past three years, there has been a perception that Uzbekistan's human rights commitments toward the human rights community are irrelevant. If the government doesn't register the [human rights] groups, at least they still let them work informally. But that is not longer the case. The government has turned up the heat on the defenders. The continued pattern of broken promises has serious implications both for Uzbekistan's human rights practices and for other issues of international concern, such as security and finance. The government has this year renewed its pledge to make its currency convertible. But anyone involved in Uzbekistan should learn that this is a state that promises much but comes up with little.
CEP: The right of human rights defenders to work in Uzbekistan has particular significance for Human Rights Watch, as members of your own staff have come under government pressure there, too.
Cavanaugh: You are right that Human Rights Watch has not been isolated from the government's anti-defender stance. During this recent crackdown alone, we've had our documents confiscated and researchers stopped and questioned. This is a miniscule portion of the abuse the community meets with generally. But there is a parallel: like the domestic human rights defenders, this harassment was tied directly to our efforts to investigate the repression of independent Muslims and conditions in Jaslyk prison colony.
CEP: What recommendations did Human Rights Watch make to Secretary Albright with regard to protection of Uzbekistan's human rights community prior to her trip?
Cavanaugh: In a letter to her, we highlighted the pattern of gross human rights violations. This pattern has been documented faithfully by the State Department's own Country Reports [on Human Rights Practices], as well, by the way, but in a typically schizophrenic response, [when it comes time to allocate assistance to Uzbekistan] the State Department denies this pattern. [For background see Eurasia Insight Archive]. We asked that the State Department to deny Uzbekistan the human-rights certification of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Pact mandated by Nunn-Lugar. We asked that she secure the release from prison of [human rights defenders] Ismoil Adylov, Meli Kobilov, and Mahbuba Kasymova. And we urged her to raise concern about the ongoing arrests of religious "extremists." The criminalization of free belief is a violation of Uzbekistan's obligations under international human rights law. The U.S. should send the message that there will be consequences for this.
CEP: This is Madeleine Albright's first visit to Central Asia as Secretary of State. What conclusions can be drawn from the timing of her visit about U.S. policy toward the region?
Cavanaugh: It suggests that U.S. policy toward Central Asia is that everything is more important than human rights: counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, interstate relations. Security takes complete and total precedence over human rights. Some might take exception to that conclusion, but the message conveyed is that [the Uzbek government] can continue to thumb its nose at its human rights commitments. [No matter what it does,], it will still get visits from senior U.S. officials, diplomatic kudos, and money, to boot.
CEP: Do you discount then the reportedly stern human rights criticism Secretary Albright gave to Kyrgyzstan's President Akayev on this same trip?
Cavanaugh: She gave criticism, but she also gave $3 million in military assistance. I see it as a reward, and I'm sure Akayev does, as well.
CEP: Please update us on the international campaign to establish the mandate for a UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders.
Cavanaugh: The UN Human Rights Commission should be voting this month to make this happen. It's not clear whether it will take the form of a Special Rapporteur or a Special Representative of the Secretary General. The main thing is the mandate. The 44-NGO coalition backing the plan, headed by the International Service for Human Rights, has submitted amendments to the draft resolution to enable this person to make recommendations, not just receive information. We are confident that it will result in a strong mandate.
CEP: How does Human Rights Watch assess the impact of Secretary Albright's visit to Uzbekistan?
Cavanaugh: Human Rights Watch is deeply disturbed that the Secretary's visit continues the perverse paradox in US Central Asia policy. On the one hand, we welcome the Secretary's remarks to the effect that tarring all Muslims with the brush of terrorism is both morally wrong and politically destabilizing. On the other, the extension of still more aid, 10 million more dollars to the "power ministries" of the Uzbek government is unconscionable. The announcement that Uzbek representatives will be invited to participate in a June conference in Washington on "counter terrorism" only confirms for the Uzbeks that the U.S. supports their actions despite their massive human rights violations. Every year the Uzbek government is arresting, torturing and convicting hundreds more men on vague charges of "religious extremism," not for their actions, but for expressing their opposition to the government's policies in religious terms, or even for suspicion of doing so. Until they cease these abuses, all security assistance should be off-limits.