I am most happy to be here today to join in Freedom House’s Open House. This is a welcome addition to the resources available to the community which is working to improve basic human rights here in Uzbekistan. The organisers are to be congratulated on the initiative, as are the US government for their assistance with finance.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am a Scot, and proud of my race. Our national poet, Robert Burns, notes in his great poem “The De’il’s awa’ wi’ the Exciseman” that “Whisky and Liberty gang the gither”, which for those whose Scots is a wee bit rusty means “Whisky and Liberty go together”. Well we all know how difficult it is to find real whisky in
Tashkent. It does exist, but mostly on diplomatic premises. There is still a lot of wisdom in old Robert.
It is also a great pleasure to see such a gathering of those promoting human rights in Uzbekistan, both from outside and inside the country, and from both governmental and non-governmental sectors. I am also pleased to see representatives of the media here today – I trust I will see these proceedings fully and openly reported.
Let us have no illusions about the size of the challenge we face. We must all agree that independent Uzbekistan had a great handicap to overcome in the very poor legacy on issues of freedom from the Soviet Union. But nonetheless this country has made very disappointing progress in moving away from the dictatorship of the Soviet period.
Uzbekistan is not a functioning democracy, nor does it appear to be moving in the direction of democracy. The major political parties are banned; parliament is not subject to democratic election and checks and balances on the authority of the executive are lacking.
There is worse: we believe there to be between seven and ten thousand people in detention whom we would consider as political and/or religious prisoners. In many cases they have been falsely convicted of crimes with which there appears to be no credible evidence they had any connection. Reputable Human Rights groups such as Human
Rights Watch and Amnesty international have brought to our attention specific instances where the same crime is used serially to convict a number of people. There appears to be a belief that such persecution of an individual can be justified by labelling them as an “Islamic extremist”.
Now, with the US and other allies, the British government remains in the very forefront of the commitment to the war against terrorism. And we are most grateful for the invaluable assistance rendered to the coalition by the government of Uzbekistan in respect of operations in Afghanistan. We acknowledge that we face the same global
Nobody should seek to underestimate the genuine security concerns of the government of Uzbekistan and the difficulties it has faced in countering those who seek to use religion and the problems of poverty to promote terror. Uzbekistan’s strategic situation has put it in the forefront of countries struggling to deal with problems such as terrorism and narcotics trafficking.
But let us make this point: no government has the right to use the war against terrorism as an excuse for the persecution of those with a deep personal commitment to the Islamic religion, and who pursue their views by peaceful means. Sadly the large majority of those wrongly imprisoned in Uzbekistan fall into this category.
But it is not only Muslims who suffer; the British Embassy yesterday observed the trial of a Jehovah’s Witness, being prosecuted for pursuing his beliefs. It should not be a crime to practice your religion, nor to tell others about it. And a number of those imprisoned are ethnic Russian human rights defenders, colleagues of some of my audience. I would like to say at this point how deeply I admire you on a personal level. I am very conscious that I stand here in a very privileged position, in the literal sense. You on the other hand daily risk persecution to stand up for the rights of your fellow citizens. You have my deepest respect and one day your countrymen will be in a position to show you their gratitude.
Uzbekistan is to be congratulated on a good record of ratifying key UN Conventions on human rights; unfortunately there appears to be a gap between obligation and practice.
World attention has recently been focussed on the prevalence of torture in Uzbek prisons. The terrible case of Avazoz and Alimov apparently tortured to death by boiling water, has evoked great international concern. But all of us know that this is not an isolated
incident. Brutality is inherent in a system where convictions habitually rely on signed confessions rather than on forensic or material evidence. In the Uzbek criminal justice system the conviction rate is almost 100%. It is difficult not to conclude that once accused by the Prokurator there is no effective possibility of fair trial in the sense we understand it.
Another chilling reminder of the former Soviet Union is the use of commitment to lunatic asylums to stifle dissidents. We are still seeing examples of this in 2002.
Nor does the situation appear to be getting any better. I have been told by people who should know that there are significantly more political and religious detainees now than there were this time last year. From my own meetings with human rights groups from across the country there appears to be a broad picture of a reduction in the rate of arrests in the first half of this year, but a very substantial increase around August. Just last week saw another highly suspicious death in police custody in Tashkent. There is little sign of genuine positive change in Human Rights.
And that is what we want to see; genuine change. By that I mean change which actually increases the liberty of Uzbek citizens in their daily lives. Uzbekistan’s international obligations require genuine respect for Human Rights. For example officially censorship
has recently been abolished. But you would not tell this by watching, listening to or reading the media which is patently under strict control and contains no significant volume of critical comment or analysis of central government policy.
Let me give you an example. In August the government embarked upon a series of closures of major bazaars in Tashkent, and subsequently across Uzbekistan. I witnessed it happen in Namangan, for example. This is not the forum to address the motive for those closures or the rights and wrongs of this action. But it was a radical action, effected with some degree of physical and moral resistance, and closed off the retail outlets through which the majority of manufactured goods are sold in this country. It directly affected the livelihood of an estimated 50,000 people. Furthermore I have in the last two weeks visited a number of factories in Uzbekistan which have halted production and laid off their workers because their distributors have been put out of business by the bazaar closures.
As I say, I make no comment on the rights and wrongs of this, though I note that the IMF has recommended that these issues be reversed, not least because of the resulting increase in inflation. But everyone in this room knows this has been a burning political issue in the last two months. Yet one could have watched Uzbek television or listened to Uzbek radio solidly throughout this period, and read the newspaper every day, but still have gathered almost nothing of the flavour of what I have just told you. There is little
reporting of basic facts and almost no free debate. I trust that the proceedings of this event will be fully and fairly reported.
What then are the components of the real change we wish to see? They are not difficult but they require political will. I believe that people are born with an instinct for liberty and that freedom and democracy come naturally to people everywhere, once they are given the chance.
Giving people freedom does not mean that anarchy and instability will follow. Indeed, it is repression which by allowing no outlet for pressures in society, risks causing resentment, alienation and social tension. Uzbekistan’s partners and friends want to see a country which is stable, free and prosperous. For that to come about there needs to be change – releases of political prisoners; registration of political opposition parties and human rights groups; the opportunity for people to express their opinions in free elections and through a free media and the right to free assembly; and to practice their religious beliefs without fear of persecution. Deeper economic reform is needed also. We are ready to support that process of change and by embarking upon it Uzbekistan will be able to transform its standing in the international community and earn the goodwill and increased support of partners whose engagement is at present limited by the problems I have addressed today.
I thank you for your kind attention.