The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, arrived in Uzbekistan on May 10 for a rare visit that advocacy groups hope could signal a break from a legacy of repression.
After arriving in Tashkent, Zeid met with Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov to discuss key priorities in improving human rights. No specifics have yet been forthcoming, but Zeid is reportedly slated to give a press conference during his visit.
Uzbekistan certainly plays the game when its coming to being seen to engage with the international rights agenda. It is a signatory to multiple UN conventions on various aspects of basic human rights and it regularly submits to depositions to the UN Human Rights Committee.
In practise, however, Uzbekistan has been chronically deceptive and evasive about its appalling rights record.
In its 2016 country report on Uzbekistan, the U.S. State Department details an extensive catalogue of ills, including “torture and abuse of detainees by security forces, denial of due process and fair trial, and an inability of citizens to choose their government in free, fair, and periodic elections.”
Arbitrary arrests, suppression of religious groups, lack of press freedoms and intimidation of rights activists are just some of the other transgressions documented by the report.
Since coming to power late last year, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has made some tentative moves toward addressing some of those problems, although his critics insist he is not moving fast enough.
In February, Muhammad Bekjanov, a political journalist who had languished behind bars for 18 years was released. Three months earlier, once-outspoken 72-year-old businessman Samandar Kukanov was released from jail after 24 years of imprisonment — a term he earned because of his links to the opposition Erk party.
It is notable, however, that people slated for release had typically not only served their entire sentences, but usually also had some additional years added on spurious grounds, making the concessions less than spectacular gestures of clemency.
“Both publicly and privately, he should call on President Mirziyoyev to immediately and unconditionally release thousands of political prisoners languishing in Uzbekistan’s jails, open up Uzbekistan to visits by the fourteen UN human rights experts who have requested access and not been able to visit the country since 2002,” Swerdlow told the Moscow-based website.
Despite its positive steps, Uzbekistan retains a propensity for reverting to old habits. In early March, indefatigable rights activist Elena Ulaeva was detained and placed in a psychiatric institution — a Soviet-vintage method for targeting dissidents that remains favored by Tashkent. She has since been released. And it is still not unknown for mysterious deaths in police custody — like that of Murodillo Omonov, a 32-year old businessman in the Surkhandarya region, in January — to remain without investigation.
Some quarters of the local press have gingerly experimented with more open criticism of the government’s shortcomings. And yet authorities have not yet provided firm evidence they are prepared to open up the country to foreign reporters.
Alexei Volosevich, the editor of AsiaTerra, a news website run out of Tashkent but unavailable for access inside Uzbekistan, said Zeid has long been seeking a meeting with top Uzbek officials, and that Mirziyoyev’s government may agree to some fresh concessions by way of making the visit a success.
That sentiment was echoed by Ivar Dale, an activists with the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, in comments to ferghana.ru.
“We have to assume the High Commissioner is aware of the way his visit may be used in state propaganda in this part of the world, in order to show a commitment to international human rights standards that really is nothing but window-dressing,” Dale said. “However, in my experience, UN experts are familiar with the way authoritarian regimes seek to ‘drown’ the real issues in statistics and meaningless figures. And I don't think Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein is easily fooled.” But it remains to be seen whether he and his office are brave enough, or perhaps diplomatic enough, to raise the really, really difficult questions.”
There is some evidence that Zeid is getting some unvarnished feedback as local rights activists have already been permitted to meet with him.
“During our meeting with the High Commissioner, the issue of readmitting international organizations like Human Rights Watch and Freedom House was not raised, but the very fact the meeting took place gives us some hope,” Bukhara-based activist Shukhrat Ganiyev told EurasiaNet.org.
Uzbekistan Supreme Court approved a Justice Ministry petition to close HRW’s office in Tashkent in June 2011. The suppression of international organizations like HRW were prompted in particular by their routine demands for a thorough and independent investigations into the events leading up to the crackdown of protesters in the Ferghana Valley city of Andijon in 2005.