Shifty U.S. envoys have been spotted lurking in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan digging for dirt on a competitor whose cheap crop could squeeze out America’s own exports.
At least that’s the yarn some media in Uzbekistan are spinning.
The U.S. Embassy has rubbished the claim.
In a report on October 16, website 12news.uz alleged that three suspicious elements were recently seen in the fields in Qashqadaryo Region, posing as journalists and officials from Uzbekistan’s Foreign Ministry.
“The ‘Uzbekistan Foreign Ministry staff and journalists’ turned out to be diplomats from the US Embassy in Tashkent, who had specially gone to the remote region to find some kind of problems which it would be possible to trumpet to the entire word as ‘the grossest cases of violations of human rights and restrictions on freedoms,’” the website wrote.
12news.uz speculated that the fact-finding team was motivated by a desire to thwart the rising sales of “comparatively cheap cotton from Uzbekistan” on world markets, which it said “in no way suits American farmers.”
The embassy was categorical in its denial.
“The allegations in this story are inaccurate, and we strongly disagree with the characterizations contained in the article,” spokeswoman Natella Svistunova told EurasiaNet.org by e-mail.
Pointing out that diplomats are free to travel under the Vienna Convention, Svistunova said embassy staff had traveled to various parts of Uzbekistan, carrying identification.
Svistunova said embassy staff “always correctly represent themselves, when asked.”
One of the embassy’s goals “is to better understand changing practices in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest,” Svistunova said.
“Our diplomats were conducting regular business of observation, something the Embassy does year after year — this year is no different. In general, these trips have proceeded without incident,” she said.
With the cotton harvest in full swing in Uzbekistan, the government is coming under fresh criticism over the reported use of forced labor to pick the crop.
Campaigners seeking to document the harvest are being subjected to arrest, violence and intimidation as they go about their work.
In June, U.S. Ambassador Pamela Spratlen met with human rights campaigner Elena Urlaeva, shortly after the activist was arrested while trying to document the cotton harvest and subjected to sexual assault while in custody. At the time, the embassy said that efforts to strengthen relations with authorities in Uzbekistan included “a focus on the role of a vibrant and independent civil society.”
Urlaeva has been arrested several times since meeting with Spratlen.
There is broad consensus that international pressure and a cotton boycott by big-name retailers have succeeded in compelling Tashkent to all but eradicate child labor from the harvest.
But campaigners say this has simply shifted the burden to adult forced laborers. Around one million people are drafted in every year to pick cotton, which reaps a tidy profit for the state. The government has a monopoly over sales of the crop.
At Uzbekistan’s annual cotton fair last week, Tashkent signed multi-million-dollar contracts to sell 700,000 tons of cotton fiber and $800 million worth of textiles.