The total absence of even a shadow of an ethical dimension to UK foreign policy is nowhere better illustrated than its continued relationship with the appalling Uzbek dictatorship. There is competition of course for the role of most unconscionable British policy. The support for the vicious tyrant of Bahrain and the suppression of the Bahraini Shia majority, the secret British military presence on the ground in Saudi Arabia assisting the bombing campaign that has killed thousands of children, these are sickening examples of Britain’s true role in the world.
But for sheer hypocrisy, the continued military support of a dictatorship universally recognised as having no equal in repression outside North Korea, takes the prize. Here are some truly vomit-inducing passages from a speech today by the British ambassador to Uzbekistan:
The Ambassador stressed the great importance of the defence relationship between the UK and Uzbekistan and expressed his gratitude for Uzbekistan’s assistance and longstanding support for transit arrangements that facilitate UK military operations in Afghanistan. Defense cooperation between the two nations has been steadily increasing over the period and is continuing to develop in a mutually beneficial manner. Among many other notable achievements, the British Embassy is proud that the UK was the first nation to sign a defense education agreement between our military academies.
Ambassador Allan spoke about the many positive results achieved over the 25 years of UK-Uzbekistan bilateral political relations. He mentioned the visit of the first President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, HE Mr. Islam Karimov, to the United Kingdom in November 1993, which gave a powerful early stimulus to the development of the relations between two countries. Fittingly, last year – the 25th Anniversary of Uzbekistan’s independence – was a particularly important one for bilateral relations in the political sphere. In April 2016, Tobias Ellwood, Deputy Minister at the Foreign Office, visited Uzbekistan to further deepen the bilateral relations between the UK and Uzbekistan. And in December 2016, Sir Alan Duncan, Minister of State at the Foreign Office, also visited Uzbekistan. Minister Duncan was privileged to be the first foreign dignitary to congratulate President Mirziyoev on his inauguration in person. The visit of His Excellency the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Abdulaziz Kamilov, to Great Britain in November 2013 marked an important step in enhancing relations between the two countries and the UK hopes to welcome His Excellency back to London during the course of this year.
You may wish to compare and contrast these extracts of a speech which I wrote and delivered while British Ambassador to Uzbekistan:
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.
Among the classified documents I leaked when I blew the whistle (for which under current legislative proposals I would get 14 years in prison) was the correspondence with the FCO in which I cleared this speech for delivery. I think this has gained rather than lost interest over the years and you can read it here.
I do not pretend to be surprised that my tenure as Ambassador did not feature in Ambassador Allan’s account today of the 25 years of British/Uzbek diplomatic relations. He rather outlined a catalogue of British arse-licking. I am however quietly content that so many decent people see my efforts as rather more worthy and substantive than the current shameful policy. Twelve years after my resignation, I still hear from Uzbeks fighting for freedom every single day of my life. In twelve years time nobody in Uzbekistan will recall the name Boris Johnson.