UNICEF, the UN's International Children's Fund, has been told by Uzbekistan's government to move out of its office building in Tashkent due to urban renovation, but has not yet been offered a new space, sources who requested anonymity told ferghana.ru.
"They've already packed up their things," said the source.
UNICEF executives, mainly foreigners, will temporarily relocate to other UN offices in Tashkent, but local personnel who were already said to be crowded into inadequate quarters before the order are apparently being sent on a forced vacation for an undetermined period.
Ferghana.ru obtained a comment on the report from a UNICEF official who was also not named. "At the present time, together with the authorities of Uzbekistan, we are looking for a new building for resettlement. We believe that this is a normal process when a city is being reconstructed, and we don't see any problem in this," said the official.
Last month during a visit to Central Asia, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon visited the UNICEF building together with Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, but only for five minutes, and the staff was unable to alert him to the issue of the move, says ferghana.ru
Ferghana.ru and other independent observers in Tashkent are concerned that the UN agency could be under some pressure, as other international organizations have been in the past, as they operate in some sensitive areas of human rights and humanitarian affairs.
UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) are in the midst of a massive innoculation campaign of some 3 million children against polio, and the Uzbek government has closed the border to Tajikistan as 32 polio cases have been confirmed by WHO there. UNICEF has been careful to avoid critical statements of the government, and the state-controlled Uzbek media is not mentioning the campaign.
When a UNICEF grant recipient, HIV/AIDS campaigner Maxim Popov, was sentenced last year in part on allegations of mismanaging donor funds and "corrupting youth" with a sex education book, UNICEF remained silent about his case, despite repeated pleas by human rights groups to speak out. UNICEF, together with PSI (Population Services International) Central Asia, had supported a book Popov distributed on prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and the use of birth control.
To be sure, Tashkent has been undergoing a general reconstruction which has sparked public controversy with the removal of century-old sycamore trees from the center of Tashkent and the creation of parks and walkways that some activists have seen as deliberately designed to prevent the gathering of large demonstrations in the public squares. The current UNICEF office building is slated to be replaced by a park, says ferghana.ru, citing a letter from Tashkent officials. Yet other UN agencies have also faced impermanence that suggests possible official pressure; last year the office of the chief UN representative in Tashkent was flooded when pipes burst.
In recent years, the government of Uzbekistan has expelled a number of foreign non-governmentals organizations including Open Society Institute, Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, and Internews. Some organizations that prided themselves on taking a less confrontational approach have also been shown the door. Foreign media have also been discouraged from gaining accreditation. UNICEF has operated since 1994.