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Central Asia: U.S. Congressman Seeks To Link Aid To Reforms

One of the many casualties from Andijon in May Washington, 28 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- A leading proponent of human rights in the U.S. Congress, Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey has introduced legislation linking U.S. military and economic aid to Central Asia with democratic reforms. Smith tells RFE/RL in an interview that the U.S. government needs to engage states such as Uzbekistan in a dialogue focused on human rights and the rule of law. As in previous legislation Smith backed on Belarus, the bill calls for increased support for civil society forces in Central Asia.

Smith says he wants the United States to do more to sustain reforms in countries like Kyrgyzstan and prevent further deterioration in Uzbekistan.

Smith earlier this month introduced the Central Asia Democracy and Human Rights Act. Its key condition is that all nonhumanitarian aid -- including military aid -- be conditioned on a certification from President George W. Bush that countries are making progress toward democratization and respect for human rights.

Smith is also co-chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, a rights monitoring agency, where he has repeatedly called on Uzbekistan to permit an impartial investigation into its crackdown in Andijon in May.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Smith says he wants the United States to make a priority of human rights in the region, despite the importance of increased military ties.

"One of our concerns is that while we welcome Uzbekistan and others working with us in the war on terror, we simultaneously have high expectations that at least a minimal human rights policy be adhered to by these countries," he said. "We don't want to repeat the mistakes that were made 20, 30, 40 years ago when we worked with anybody that was willing to work with us and find ourselves working with dictatorships that torture people."

The legislation scrutinizes five areas -- democratization, freedom of speech and press, freedom of religion, prevention of
torture, and rule of law.

It says U.S. assistance would be reduced by 33 percent for each year a determination of "substantial, sustained and demonstrable progress" cannot be made. If progress is not seen for three years in a row, then all U.S. aid would be
discontinued. The only exception would be if the president restored some funds on national security grounds.

The budget for the next fiscal year calls for $188 million in U.S. foreign aid to the five Central Asian states.

Smith says Washington has an obligation to press new allies in the region to democratize. He worries that inaction on alleged Uzbek violations could lead to further bloodshed in the country.

"My argument is that we have a heightened responsibility when we're cooperating with a country like Uzbekistan to be more robust in our efforts because now we have a relationship," he said. "And while we want that relationship, particularly the war on terrorism, to flourish and grow and deepen, hopefully the other side of the coin [is addressed as well] -- Why do we do all this? So that democracy and respect for human life progresses as well. Otherwise, what's the point?"

Smith was also sponsor of the Belarus Democracy Act, signed into law by President Bush last autumn. Like that measure, the new legislation authorizes the president to support the development of democratic political parties and establish nongovernmental groups that promote democracy.

The congressman is aware of statements by regional powers Russia and China expressing concern about Western human rights activism interfering in internal affairs. He says they echo charges made by Soviet leaders and South Africa's previous apartheid regime when rights issues were raised. "These are internationally recognized human rights. Every one
of these countries have acceded to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a number of other instruments that either UN or other regional bodies have put together that guarantee fundamental human rights. So this is a matter of international law and they need to adhere to it."

Smith stressed that the law would not affect humanitarian aid flows. But he says it is legitimate to condition other aid on
rights progress: "What we're trying to do with our legislation is say 'there are carrots and sticks in here. We want to see aid flow in an unfettered way, but we want to help you to help yourself,' to vet and to be much more careful as to who occupies positions of power and influence, so that the government serves the people and not the other way around."

Smith says the linking of aid or sanctions to human rights has been shown to improve policies in a number of states. He
pointed to changes in legislation made in dozens of states in response to recent U.S. laws against human trafficking. But he says he does not believe the new legislation on Central Asia, if approved, will bring overnight changes.

"I don't expect a full-fledged democracy and independent judiciary to break out overnight," he says. "But we have to begin laying the ground work and laying those seeds, or planting those seeds, so that, in due time, with the right kind of cultivation these countries will emerge as full-fledged democracies that can then export democracy to other places."

Hearings on the new legislation are to begin when Congress returns from recess in September.

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