Veronica Zent Goldston, Central Asian Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch spoke with DW-WORLD.DE about the EU's decision to maintain its arms embargo and Visa ban on Uzbekistan and what this means for human rights.
Uzbekistan has been in the headlines more recently
Following the decision by the EU on Monday to further extend the sanctions and Visa bans on Uzbekistan, questions have been raised about how Germany will use its 2007 EU Presidency to ease these bans to promote relations with the Central Asian region.
DW-WORLD.DE: What do you think of the decision that was made on Monday by the EU to extend the embargo and the Visa ban for Uzbekistan ?
We are actually very disappointed and find it wholly unacceptable that the EU would be easing the sanctions in this sort of a way. Yes, the EU extended the sanctions, but in fact it only extended the arms embargo for the duration of 12 months -- which is the weakest of the measures and is purely symbolic. There are no arms exports between the EU and Uzbekistan, so it was an easy bargain, even for Germany to accept.
As we have seen in the past, Germany has been at the forefront of calling for the sanctions to be eased, if not lifted altogether and the fact the EU only extended the Visa ban for six months was very disappointing to us and that they are already going to conduct a review of the sanctions in three months time -- which is an indication of a very real possibility to attempt to back pedal further on the sanctions already. There is really nothing that prevents the EU from reviewing the sanctions on a continuous basis but having inserted this sort of review clause really puts the sanctions at further risk of being eased. So we are disappointed and dismayed by this.
Reports came out last week that the EU was going to drop the sanctions altogether, which Germany has been pushing for. Where do you think these predictions came from?
One factor was clearly the German Foreign Ministers' visit to Central Asia and the press reporting that surrounded this. It was impossible to see his visit as completely separated from the up-coming decision by the EU on the sanctions.
The press reports, I believe, played a very positive role in putting pressure on EU members' states to put them on notice, to show that they are being watched and that they are not going to be able to make their decision in Brussels unnoticed. The rumors about 'easing' were because of statements made by individual EU officials.
The EU meeting with Uzbekistan on the eve of its own ministerial decision is sort of twisted logic. Why hold a ministerial level meeting with the Uzbek government before the EU has had a ministerial meeting to decide on its own policy? This meeting was widely seen as the EU reaching out to the Uzbek government.
The EU foreign ministers who made the decision to extend the bans said in a statement they were "profoundly concerned by the human rights situation" in the country. What more do you think they can do to make tangible outcomes?
It is a welcome thing that they expressed profound concern but the conclusions were very vague. They stopped short of calling for specific reform steps the Uzbek government should undertake.
One of our immediate calls to the EU is that as a matter of urgent priority, they have to formulate the kind of benchmarks they expect the Uzbek government to fulfill, between now and February, when the three-month review is suppose to take place.
It is doubly important because there is a tendency among some of the EU member states to want to interpret even vague gestures on the part of the Uzbek government as progress, and that is why it is important to formulate steps that are real, tangible and measurable so that it is clear what the Uzbek government needs to do to meet expectations that the EU should have.
When German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was in Central Asia recently, he said he received a commitment that the Uzbek government would be lifting the death penalty and was commited to improving human rights.
Steinmeier, with Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov during hims visit to Tashkent
We don't have any concrete evidence of specific commitments that he would have received from the Uzbek government. All he received was that they would abolish the death penalty -- which is the recommendation that has been made for years now. Even the UN Special Rappateur for Torture, in its report that came out in 2003, called for that measure. The Uzbek Government has been treaty bound and almost obliged to follow through and has failed for all those years to enact on the recommendations.
We also heard reports that the concession would have been more specifically, that the Uzbek government promised to move up the abolition from the original date of 2008 to 2007 and again we are not impressed. These are things that the Uzbek government has known for years that it has to do and the international community has also been calling for these measures for years. It is the same thing as taking other measures to eradicate the systematic torture in the country, which the Uzbek government has failed to take any meaningful steps to address.
The other thing that was circulating in the media and we heard in our conversations with other EU diplomats was this expert seminar on Andijan. A seminar is by no means a substitute for the international commission or inquiry, which the international community has been calling for and the Uzbek government has persisted in refusing to agree to. These are gestures that are by no means adequate and anywhere near the concrete reforms that the EU should be pushing for.
Being one of the major advocates for human rights, what sort of a position do you think Germany has put itself in now, in terms of diplomacy, going to Uzbekistan and trying to get commitments from the EU, for a country that is so notorious for its human rights abuses?
We feel that Germany is bringing into questions its own integrity and we are extremely concerned by what we see. We are concerned in particular given the fact that Germany will be taking over the EU presidency in January and what that might mean to the EU's human rights policy. There is an urgent need to address that head-on and obviously we are in constant contact with officials in Berlin, as well as the German embassy in Tashkent and we hope this will generate more active opposition from some of the other member states.
According to news reports analysts have claimed Germany is anxious to maintain these good relations because of its military base in Termez, in Uzbekistan. What sort of message do you think this sends in terms of Germany's international policies?
Former Uzbek Foreign Minster of Internal Affairs Zokir Almatov was first on the Visa ban list
It sends a very bad message. What we have been told consistently by German officials is that Termez is not an obstacle, meaning that Termez would not stand in the way of human rights policies towards Uzbekistan -- that is the message from Berlin. But that general statement of principle has not translated into practice and it is hard for us to see how Termez would not be an obstacle and if Termez is not, we would need to hear of what is an obstacle.
One argument we keep hearing from the Germans is the reason the sanctions regime had to be eased was because the sanctions had not produced any positive results. That is just a completely misguided statement to make. The reason that the sanctions have not produced any positive results is precisely because the EU had not followed through with a forceful, pro-active engagement with the Uzbek government on the specific steps that it needed to take to get the sanctions lifted.
That is why the German government's portrayal of the sanctions and dialogue, as mutually inconsistent choices that the EU has to choose between, is a completely misguided statement.
The German government has done everything in its power to undermine the sanctions from the beginning, when they were adopted a year ago, by allowing the then Uzbek Foreign Minster of Internal Affairs Zokir Almatov to enter the country, despite the fact that he was number one on the Visa ban list. If it was for humanitarian reasons (that he was allowed to enter Germany) maybe there is an argument there, but where was the public statement from Berlin clarifying by no means that this is Germany's disrespect of the EU sanctions.
Where would you like to see EU and Uzbek relations go from here and what direction do you think they will take in the future?
We fear that if Germany gets its way come February, they will do whatever they can to further ease the sanctions and at this time it is not where Germany's quest for easing the sanctions ends, in fact, this is just the beginning. We would like the EU to use the review in February to recognize that this was a mistake. They should spell out the kind of reforms the Uzbek government should take in order for the sanctions to be lifted.
If the Uzbek Government fails to implement those steps, as it most likely will given its record to date on implementing recommendations by the international community, the EU really has to follow through on not only extending the existing sanctions regime, but also expanding it to include these missing senior officials onto the Visa ban list. Also, freezing the assets of all those who are on the Visa ban list, to make it impossible for them to access the banking system within the EU.
Coupled with these measures, the EU really has to take an active and strategically thought out dialogue with the Uzbek government where it pushes for the advancement of specific reform steps such as the release of all the jailed human rights defenders and the implementation of the UN Special Rappateur for Torture, the registration of NGO's and opposition political parties, allowing international organizations that have been kicked out of Uzbekistan in the last two years to come back and allowing access to UN monitors and other independent experts who have long sought access to Uzbekistan and have been denied. These are the kinds of steps that the EU should use its leverage to advance, rather than accepting empty gestures.
Veronica Zent Goldston is the Advocacy Director for Central Asia for Human Rights Watch and is based in New York .