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Central Asia: U.S., Rights Groups At Odds Over Approach To Reforms

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

While the United States is stepping up efforts to eradicate terrorism and isolate such countries as Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, human rights groups are cautioning Washington against courting authoritarian leaders in Central Asia who might use the international drive against terror to consolidate their power by eliminating all forms of dissent. In their defense, U.S. officials say increased support to these regimes will boost democratization.

Prague, 12 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Since the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States, rights activists, intellectuals, and liberal politicians have cautioned governments against taking advantage of the international drive against terrorism to justify their own crackdowns on political or religious dissent.

From democratic Australia -- which cited the attacks to justify the illegal detention of hundreds of Afghan asylum seekers -- to European Union candidate Turkey -- which is considering banning a pro-Kurdish political party for alleged terrorist links -- many countries are being singled out for failing to abide by international rules of law in their efforts to address security threats.

Human rights groups note that, since September, abuses have significantly increased in Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya, where federal troops are being blamed for indiscriminate violence against civilians. And in China, authorities have used the September events as a pretext to step up reprisals against the 8-million-strong Uyghur minority living in the northwestern Xinjiang province.

Both Moscow and Beijing accuse their respective separatist movements of organized links with Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terrorist network, but neither capital has so far produced any definite evidence to sustain such claims.

Of particular concern to human rights groups is the increasing political and military cooperation between the U.S. and those Central Asian governments that have played a significant role in the anti-Taliban campaign but which show little tolerance for any form of internal dissent.

Hundreds of American soldiers are currently based in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, both of whom U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle in mid-January praised for what he described as "the extraordinary effort they have made to provide support" to the Afghan campaign.

Critics believe U.S. President George W. Bush's administration -- which is itself being reproached for its alleged rough handling of Al-Qaeda prisoners -- is prepared to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in some Central Asian countries in return for their loyalty.

On 18 January, the Amnesty International non-governmental organization released a report dismissing claims that protecting human rights cannot co-exist with effective action against terrorism and objecting to those who argue that the threat of terrorism justifies limiting or suspending human rights.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Amnesty spokeswoman Judith Arrenes cautioned the U.S. government against "double standards" when it comes to combating terrorism: "One of the things that we have been constant and very watchful and mindful of since 11 September is this kind of double-standards policy in relation to human rights. Whereas the Afghanistan regime was held accountable for absolutely everything that it had failed to do to uphold human rights, all of a sudden, in military-strategic interests, governments like the governments of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and so on suddenly became acceptable allies. Even the Russian government's own performance within Chechnya [became] acceptable, or definitely was not put under the scrutiny that we feel it should have faced."

U.S. officials deny such charges by human rights groups. Speaking on 5 February before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Colin Powell said strategic cooperation does not preclude U.S. concerns about human rights.

"We have a number of new friends, but we're not unmindful that a number of these new friends -- and I will say Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan -- do not have the kind of political systems yet that we think are appropriate to the 21st century. And we have no reservation about saying that to them," Powell said.

Powell added that he had conveyed this message the day before to one of his visiting Central Asian counterparts: "I had the foreign minister of one of those countries in my office yesterday, and we talked about this very candidly. Corruption, human rights, and religious freedom -- all these things are important in a relationship with the United States. And don't ever expect to have a meeting where we don't talk about those issues, even though I'm complimenting you in the next sentence about what you've done in the war against terrorism."

Critics argue in response that on 27 January -- only two days after Uzbekistan held a controversial referendum extending President Islam Karimov's term of office from five to seven years -- the assistant U.S. secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, Elizabeth Jones, announced in Tashkent that the U.S. will triple its economic aid to the impoverished state.

American officials say that, far from lowering its guard on human rights, the Bush administration believes economic prosperity will boost democratic transformations in Central Asia, thus defusing political discontent and helping to uproot the causes of terrorism.

Barnett Rubin is a senior researcher at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations. He also teaches at the New York-based Center for International Cooperation. In an interview with RFE/RL's Tajik Service, Rubin said the defeat of the Taliban should give the U.S. more leverage to promote democratization in Central Asia.

"In the past, when the United States approached these governments about human rights questions and liberalization, the main answer [those governments] gave was: 'We can't become more open while we are subject to so many threats, especially coming from Afghanistan.' So I think that in this new situation, we can go back to them and say: 'Well, we have greatly reduced those threats, but we have to recognize that the cause of the dissent and disorder in your society is not only the external threat -- so that made it much worse -- but also the internal problems. So let's work together to try to resolve these internal problems -- economic and also political," Rubin said.

Karimov has justified his crackdown by the threat posed to his country by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an armed group that originally had its headquarters in the Ferghana Valley, an area that extends across Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

Three years ago, IMU militants fled Uzbekistan to set up in Tajikistan before finding shelter in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Most IMU fighters -- including the movement's military leader, Juma Namangani -- were reportedly either killed or taken prisoner during the U.S. Afghan campaign.

Now that the IMU has been dismantled, Karimov says his regime is threatened by another Islamic movement known as the Hizb-ut-Tahrir, or Party of Islamic Liberation, which advocates the creation of a caliphate in the Ferghana Valley.

Although party members claim they want to attain their political objectives by peaceful means, they are being harassed by authorities in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and even in Azerbaijan, where law-enforcement agencies last year claimed they had uncovered underground cells plotting against the state.

Human rights groups believe that, despite recent improvements in Uzbekistan's criminal code and last month's trial of four policemen accused of torturing a Hizb-ut-Tahrir activist to death, Karimov still holds an estimated 7,000 political prisoners.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch group also notes that, in October, the U.S. State Department failed to list Uzbekistan among "countries of particular concern" in its annual report on religious freedom. Karimov is due to visit the U.S. in March.

Critics argue Washington's post-Taliban policy toward Central Asia may, in the end, prove ineffective. They question whether local governments are willing to implement democratic changes and whether the U.S. will have the ability, or the political will, to ensure financial aid is used to foster reforms.

To some of these critics, the present situation is reminiscent of the Cold War, when the U.S. supported anti-communist countries however poor their human rights records might have been. Proponents of the current U.S. stance say the end justifies the means and that Washington's new containment policy might work against terrorism just as they believe it did against communism.

But Amnesty spokeswoman Arrenes said nothing can justify a compliant attitude toward human rights violations: "Human rights cannot be compromised in the search for security. In fact, as an organization, we firmly believe that the building blocs for a safe and secure society lie within respecting human rights. If you look and analyze all the causes of discontent, all the causes of conflict, the majority of them tend to stem from a failure to respect some aspects of human rights. Be it because there is racism. Be it because there are ethnic differences. Be it because certain economic, cultural and social rights were not respected."

In an editorial published on 5 February in "The New York Times," U.S. scholar Michael Ignatieff gave a similar assessment, warning Washington not to disregard human rights issues when addressing security threats.

Ignatieff, who teaches human rights at the Massachusetts-based John F. Kennedy School of Government, wrote: "The United States, to encourage the building of secure states that do not harbor or export terror, will have to do more than secure [military] base agreements. It will have to pressure these countries to provide basic political rights and due process. As the Cold War should have taught us, cozying up to friendly authoritarians is a poor bet in the long term."

(RFE/RL Tajik Service's Iskandar Aliyev contributed to this report.)