ANKARA, 18 Nov 2004 (IRIN) – While a mission from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) is touring Central Asia, Uzbekistan, long criticised by the international community over its poor human rights record and the practice of torture, is cracking down on independent Muslims following the terrorist attacks earlier this year and the situation is not likely to improve, Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to Tashkent, told IRIN in an interview on Thursday.
Murray, who served in Central Asia’s most populous country for more than two years, said that the Uzbek government was giving very few economic opportunities to its 25 million odd population, a situation likely to cause more violent reaction to the government’s harsh policies.
QUESTION: Human rights abuses in Uzbekistan have been well documented by international organisations, but what additional information do you have to add to the picture based on your experiences as British ambassador in Tashkent?
ANSWER: I am not sure I can add much to the excellent documentation by groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Pen and Forum 18 not to mention the report by Theo van Boven, UN special rapporteur on torture.
I would, however, like to see more work done on the absence of economic freedom. In particular, the system of internal movement control means that those born on state farms – 60 percent of the population – are effectively serfs.
The widespread use by the state of forced child labour in the cotton harvest also should be highlighted further. This is one area [where] I would like to see the UN take a much more active role.
Where I could help on the ground was in interpreting events. For example, the US has praised certain areas of so-called progress in reform, such as the abolition of censorship or the abolition of two counts of the death penalty.
In fact, censorship is total, and while two redundant counts of the death penalty were abolished – genocide and armed aggression against another state, neither of which had ever been used – at the same time the definition of treason was expanded to include a wide range of opposition activity. The net result was that the death penalty was more, not less, active.
Q: Can anything be done by the outside world to challenge the culture of human rights abuse you have referred to on a number of occasions, both while serving as ambassador and since?
A: I think the outside world has a certain leverage because Uzbekistan is party to a great many international treaties and conventions she does not respect – the UN convention against torture being one obvious example.
Furthermore, Uzbekistan is a member of a number of organisations – including the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the NATO Partnership for Peace (PfP), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the Asian Development Bank (ADB) – which have basic commitments to values, which Uzbekistan does not respect. Indeed, President [Islam] Karimov openly rejects so-called Western values and democracy, which are in fact universal.
So far only the EBRD has grasped the nettle of dealing with a state which fails to respect its fundamental values, but I feel that is an excellent example. It no longer will lend to Uzbekistan, except in certain highly specialised circumstances.
Q: Do you feel the West’s policy of constructive engagement with Tashkent had produced any positive results or do you feel it has stalled reform?
A: The economy of Uzbekistan is getting worse and repression gets harsher and harsher. I do not see, therefore, how the West can claim engagement has worked. I recall a meeting this year where the US Ambassador said the US had many full-time advisers in Uzbek economic ministries. I said that left two choices – either their advice was not being followed, or they were giving rubbish advice.
With its extraordinary economic policy of clamping down on private economic activity and closing its borders to trade, I think aid from the US, Japan and the ADB in particular has been essential in propping up the Karimov regime.
Equally important has been the fulsome political support for Karimov from all the senior figures in the US administration, from Bush down. To support such a vicious dictatorship can never be right and as the Tashkent regime tortures innocent Muslims, US support for him can only increase hatred for the West in the Islamic world.
Q: The jury is still out on who was responsible for the March bombings in Tashkent and Bokhara, the authorities were quick to label the attacks as the work of religious extremists. Now hundreds of young Uzbeks are being branded Islamic radicals and tried accordingly. What, in your view, was behind the bombings, and are we likely to see more such attacks?
A: Growing poverty, lack of economic opportunity and the absence of any democratic opportunity for change, or even any opportunity to express their views peacefully, has driven many young people to despair in Uzbekistan. This is made worse as many have seen family members unjustly imprisoned and tortured.
We cannot therefore be surprised that some are driven to violence. I condemn violence completely, but a regime as brutal and kleptocratic as Karimov’s will always provoke some violent reaction.
I believe that the March bombings were carried out by young Muslims. But I have researched this carefully – I personally visited all the bomb sites within a couple of hours of the blasts. I have spoken to witnesses and families of both alleged perpetrators and victims. From this I know that the young activists were very heavily penetrated by the Uzbek security services and there is a reason to believe this was an agent provocateur operation – which is probably why ordinary policemen, not political figures, were attacked.
The extreme repression of the Uzbek regime means that often underground radical Islam is the only opposition to Karimov that young people encounter, so it looks to them an attractive option. The west should transfer all the resources it spends on the Karimov regime into promoting a democratic alternative – for example by funding analogue television programming in from powerful transmitters in neighbouring countries, and through very substantial funding and training for the democratic opposition. Otherwise
more violence is inevitable.
Q: Despite its size and resources, Uzbekistan remains one of the poorest of the countries that used to make up the Soviet Union. What are the causes of this poverty and what impact is it having at a grassroots level, particularly in rural areas?
A: Uzbekistan has taken the worst features of the Soviet command economy and ratcheted up the pressure still further to ensure that only a tiny minority of the elite reaps major economic benefits and maintains political control.
Increasing poverty is measurable in poor diet, increasing health problems, decreasing literacy, especially among females, and a sharp decline in ownership of consumer durables. Rural families often have lost all household goods now to buy food. The result is rapid radicalisation of the population. I predict increasing agrarian tension and violence in the next 12 months.
Q: In a recent speech in London you spoke about the alarming levels of heroin now transiting through Uzbekistan, why do you think that is and what are the consequences for the country if the trade is not curbed?
A: Uzbekistan is not just a transit country, but heroin usage is also rapidly increasing. Among young people in Samarkand and Bokhara in particular – on the transit route – it is epidemic. Consequences include increasing crime and HIV. In these towns youth unemployment is about 60 percent (the Uzbek government says 0.5 percent!).
The major problem is that senior members of the regime are personally engaged in narcotics trafficking, rendering useless all the money the West and the UN is spending on equipment and training for Uzbek customs.
Government vehicles and the vehicles shuttling back and forth between the regime and general [Rashid] Dostum [in northern Afghanistan] carry the narcotics – and these vehicles are not stopped by customs. The small amount of interception of private smugglers might be characterised as eliminating the competition.