Washington’s top diplomat traveled to Central Asia to kick-start a historic initiative to reinvigorate U.S. engagement with the region, but it was the unceremonious treatment of a reporter that is going to stick in the memory.
Activists had hoped in advance of John Kerry’s whistle-stop tour that human rights issues might feature prominently on the agenda. But talk of those was relegated to the sidelines — in public at least.
Instead, Kerry focused on prospects of security, energy and economic cooperation, which have long constituted core priorities for Washington.
The closest Kerry came to mentioning Central Asia’s poor human rights record in public was in remarks about “quality of governance and the strength of democratic institutions.”
“In Central Asia, as elsewhere, people have a deep hunger for governments that are accountable and effective,” he said at the meeting on November 1 in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, with foreign ministers from the region’s five former Soviet republics.
The U.S. State Department said in advance of the tour that this meeting would form the basis of a new diplomatic format, which it has dubbed C5+1.
“We should have no doubt that progress in democratic governance does lead to gains in every other field about which we are concerned and about which we are talking,” Kerry said.
The muted tone of those remarks will have come as a disappointment to many.
Human Rights Watch had said before Kerry’s trip that he “should make clear that a critical part of strengthening bilateral ties will be the release of people wrongfully imprisoned, allowing human rights groups and journalists to do their work unhindered, ending impunity for torture, and upholding other key human rights commitments.”
Campaigners had hoped Kerry might during his October 31 stop-off in Kyrgyzstan call for releasing jailed rights activist Azimjan Askarov, who received a State Department award earlier this year, much to Bishkek’s irritation. Kerry chose to limit his remarks to expressing his “regret” that the award had caused concern.
Washington Post reporter Carol Morello attempted to force Kerry off the fence during his face-to-face meeting with Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov in Samarkand by shouting out a question about Tashkent’s rights record, which has been criticized often and heavily by Kerry’s own department.
Since no press opportunities are typically offered to reporters in the tightly controlled official events such as visits of high-ranking envoys, Morello was apparently seizing on the limited window at her disposal.
As video footage posted on The Washington Post website shows, Morello’s outburst prompted minions to robustly bundle her out of the room.
“Take her out, take her out,” voices can be heard saying in American-accented English as she is hustled from the room.
State Department officials briefed reporters to say that Morello was not the only person to get robust treatment in Central Asia. Reuters reported that Kerry did not shy away from raising rights issues “robustly,” although he chose to do it only behind closed doors.
Kerry traveled on from Samarkand to Astana, where he met President Nursultan Nazarbayev on November 2 and was due to give a speech at the Nazarbayev University before moving on to Ashgabat and Dushanbe.