Radio Free Europe: Uzbekistan: Interview With Former British Ambassador Craig Murray

Radio Free Europe – Uzbekistan: Interview With Former British Ambassador Craig Murray (by Kathleen Moore)

Prague, 18 February 2005 (RFE/RL) — Craig Murray may be one of Britain’s least diplomatic diplomats in recent memory. While ambassador to Tashkent, he spoke publicly about repression and the lack of democratic freedoms in Uzbekistan. Last year he accused the United States and United Kingdom of using intelligence gained from people tortured in Uzbekistan. And in a widely published speech in November, he criticized the United States for helping prop up what he called President Islam Karimov’s “brutal” regime. Murray was suspended from his post in October 2004 and has now taken severance pay — moves the British Foreign Office has said are not connected with his outspoken views. He now plans to run against British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in Britain’s Parliamentary election, expected in May.

RFE/RL: What’s prompted you to stand against Jack Straw in the upcoming general election?

Murray: I think that under this government Britain has moved away from the basic principles that governed foreign policy for many years, in particular support for the United Nations, support for the role of international law. And that’s really quite a serious step which the British people didn’t approve of, people didn’t approve of us entering into an illegal war against Iraq without the sanction of the UN Security Council. So I’m trying to bring that home to the foreign secretary, because he obviously carries the responsibility for foreign policy.

RFE/RL: Are you hoping to emulate Martin Bell [a former British journalist who entered politics in order to defeat a member of parliament embroiled in a corruption scandal] or is winning not the point?

Murray: I’m hoping to do a “Martin Bell” in the sense that I want to make the illegal war on Iraq, the government’s attacks on human rights at home, its failure to support human rights abroad — I’m hoping to make those key issues which get more national attention than they would otherwise. Martin Bell did the same two elections ago for the issue of sleaze, and concentrated media attention on that. I’m hoping to concentrate media attention on the issues of legality and foreign policy. So I’m hoping to emulate him in that sense, bring media attention on a relevant issue. Obviously I’d like to emulate him in terms of being elected, but that’s entirely up to the voters of Blackburn [Straw’s constituency].

RFE/RL: And you are including in those issues that you want to highlight the U.K.’s acceptance of intelligence gained under torture overseas?

Murray: That’s one of the key issues I will highlight, the fact that Jack Straw has personally sanctioned the use by the U.K. of intelligence materials obtained under torture. I came across it in Uzbekistan, but exactly the same thing is happening in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, many many countries. What is worse, people have been able to be locked up here in the U.K., detained without trial, on the basis of such intelligence, which is really a dreadful scandal. I will by trying to highlight that in the election campaign.

RFE/RL: What was it that prompted you to speak out about rights abuses while you were ambassador to Uzbekistan?

Murray: I think the brutality in Tashkent was so extreme and so all-pervasive that it was necessary to expose it. I did speak out very strongly, but for example [former U.S. Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright had made a speech in 2000 which was just as strong as anything I ever said about the regime in Tashkent. Sadly, of course, with the coming of the [George W.] Bush administration, America decided it was again going to start backing some nasty dictators who they viewed as on their side, and the American position changed, and the rest of the West was only too eager to fall in behind that noncritical support of [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov. But that was in violation of every international agreement on human rights, and I was only speaking along the lines of accepted British policy.

RFE/RL: What was the reaction of you fellow ambassadors?

Murray: I think they were pretty surprised. When I first arrived in Uzbekistan, as a new ambassador you make courtesy calls on other ambassadors. When I called on other European Union ambassadors and said to them, ‘Goodness the human rights situation here is terrible, this is a really nasty dictatorship,’ two of them said to me absolutely directly, ‘Yes we know, but we don’t mention that because they’re [Uzbekistan] close allies of the United States.’ And there was an understanding among ambassadors in Tashkent that they just pretended not to notice what was going on. That made their lives more comfortable living and working in Tashkent, they weren’t people personally fond of confrontations. And I think there was some discomfort and pique that I had brought to public attention issues that they viewed as best swept under the carpet.

RFE/RL: The United States has said it’s promoting reforms in Uzbekistan and that it has kept human rights on the agenda, withholding some aid last year because of the poor human rights record. The EU has also spoken in terms of supporting and encouraging reforms. Has this approach brought any results, do you think?

Murray: No, none whatsoever. There isn’t any reform happening. The U.S. sometimes tries to pretend there are bits and pieces of reform. For example, two years ago the U.S. ambassador was loudly proclaiming the abolition of censorship. [the U.S. ambassador said in 2002 he welcomed the move to end official media censorship, but added it was only a first step leading Uzbekistan to an open society.] In fact no such thing has happened, Uzbekistan is still 100 percent censored in its media. And when the State Department cut $12 million of aid last year because of Uzbekistan’s appalling human rights record, the Pentagon immediately gave an increase in military aid of more than twice that to make it up. [In August, General Richard Meyers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced in Tashkent that Washington would give Uzbekistan an additional $21 million to prevent the proliferation of biological weapons.] I think that the U.S. is in an absolutely disgraceful position with regard to Uzbekistan.

RFE/RL: How should the West treat the Uzbek regime?

Murray: We should treat it as a pariah regime. There is certainly no more freedom in Uzbekistan than there is in Belarus, and the regime in Tashkent is still more vicious and violent than the regime of [Belarusian President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka. And Lukashenka we’re quite happy to ostracize and bring sanctions against while we court Karimov. If you take Zimbabwe, which was named as one of [U.S. Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice’s evil dictatorships, I have no time for President [Robert] Mugabe, but there is an opposition in Zimbabwe, and people can, at some risk, go to the polls and vote for an opposition candidate, and they do so. There is an independent judiciary in Zimbabwe whereas there is no such thing in Tashkent. Uzbekistan is certainly in the ‘Top 10’ for dictatorial regimes in the world and we should treat it as such. We don’t have any difficulty treating Mugabe and Lukashenka as pariahs, so why should we not treat Karimov in the same way?

RFE/RL: Do you think you achieved anything by speaking out?

Murray: There are individual cases of people who would be in prison today and possibly would be dead today if we hadn’t managed to act and intervene in their cases in Uzbekistan. I think there is much more international attention towards Uzbekistan. I don’t believe, for example, that the [U.S.] State Department would have made its token cut in aid if it wasn’t for the international attention that the U.K. brought to the human rights violations in Uzbekistan. So I have achieved something in at least raising an awareness of the problem in the world. But plainly I haven’t achieved any real reform in Uzbekistan because there is no sign of that.

RFE/RL: Do you have any regrets about what you did?

Murray: Obviously on a personal basis I enormously regret the loss of my career which had been extremely successful in my 20 years at the Foreign Office. I didn’t head to Uzbekistan thinking, ‘This is a good place to throw my career away.’ It wasn’t intended. I regret that, but I don’t feel I could have done anything else.