By Zahava Moerdler
As the world focuses its attention on the nuclear deal with Iran and the debt crisis in Greece, many other important issues are left out of the global discourse. In fact, an article about the blatant human rights abuses in Central Asia rarely makes it into the newspaper, let alone onto the front page. Yet, gross injustice and repression persists in the region. Here are some worrisome examples: In Kazakhstan, there is increasing repression of freedom of expression and free media. In Tajikistan, the government persecutes people and groups working on issues such as freedom of expression, religious freedom and political participation. In Kyrgyzstan, while there is a vibrant civil society, some organization are coming under pressure and the parliament is considering two restrictive pieces of legislation: a homophobic “propaganda law” that would restrict freedom of speech and impose penalties for promoting non-traditional sexual relations and a “foreign agents” law that would force groups with foreign funding to register as foreign agents. In Uzbekistan, following the Andijan massacre in 2005, the government cracked down on civil society organizations, imprisoned human rights advocates and evicted international journalists and monitoring groups. Finally, in Turkmenistan, the government employs imprisonment to retaliate against dissenters and refuses to provide information about those imprisoned years ago who have since disappeared.
Despite the lack of media coverage about these issues, there are some in the U.S. government that are still keenly interested in the human rights situation in Central Asia. A recent hearing before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, in which U.S. government representatives laid out a number of their concerns for the region, paints a troublesome picture. First, there seems to be a connection between religious freedom and violent extremism. For example, religious repression correlates with a rise in violent extremism. Robert Berschinski from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor testified before a Congressional hearing that heavy-handed policies of restricting expression, religion and peaceful gatherings lead to radicalization. This is followed by more restrictive governmental policies, in the hopes of combating extremism. Second, the region lacks meaningful participation in government and a robust opposition, resulting in unhealthy political systems. For example, in Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, who has been in power since 1990, was once again elected in a “predictable landslide victory.” Tajiki elections are neither free nor fair, and media coverage was restricted during the recent elections in Kazakhstan where President Nurzulran Nazabayev was re-elected without any real opposition.
Third, the region has increasingly restricted the work of civil society. In Kyrgyzstan, a law modeled after Russian laws, curtails the effectiveness of civil society groups. Any group receiving foreign funding and involved in political activities would have to register as a “foreign agent.” Additionally, any material published by such groups would have to note that they are distributed by a “non-commercial organization acting as a foreign agent.” In Uzbekistan, journalists are treated deplorably. For example, Muhammod Bekjanov, a journalist, has been imprisoned for 16 years after publishing and editing an opposition newspaper. In Tajikistan, the government has blocked Internet access and restricted freedom of expression. And in Turkmenistan, media censorship and surveillance of journalists is the norm.
One of the most alarming results of the intense human rights repressions across Central Asia is its effect on the radicalization and migration of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq. [This trend was mentioned at the hearing, but it was also something repeatedly brought up in hearings and briefings before various panels on ISIS, Central Asia and Syria] Unfortunately, this has resulted in a negative feedback loop: governments believe that more restrictions are necessary to curb radicalization of their citizens; but more people are radicalized due to these same restrictions.
As these abuses persist in the region, the U.S. and other governments can play a role to curb growing radicalization and human rights abuses. During the hearing, Jeff Goldstein, a senior policy analyst for Eurasia at the Open Society Foundations, argued that the U.S. needs to move resources away from security programs and into governance, education, employment, health care and democratization in the region. He also stressed that there will be no effective reform where there is no will to create it. Therefore, the U.S. must work with movements on the ground in each respective country.
Allison Gill, an expert on Central Asia from Amnesty International, also suggested that the U.S. could take a number of actions specifically concerning Uzbekistan, including: take a leadership role in creating a United Nations report on Uzbekistan’s human rights record; urging the Uzbek government to open the country to independent scrutiny by allowing UN special human rights monitors and ending the restrictions on civil society; calling for the release of all imprisoned journalists and human rights defenders; providing support to Uzbekistan in its effort to amend the Criminal Procedure Code to expressly prohibit torture.
Although the situation in Central Asia seems bleak, there have been some hopeful changes. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have both legislated against child labor in some way, and there is legislation pending to outlaw forced adult labor in Uzbekistan. Additionally, Turkmenistan recently released a number of religious leaders, demonstrating a modicum of religious freedom. These successes show how change is possible in the region. However, Central Asia still has a lot of work to do to promote democracy and freedom of expression, religion and association.
Zahava Moerdler was a 2015 Leitner Center Summer Fellow. She interned with the House Foreign Affairs Committee Democratic Staff.
The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.
Photo credit: Jose Javier Martin Espartosa/Creative Commons