A senior U.S. human rights official has vowed that Washington will continue to press Uzbek authorities on reforms and its call for an independent inquiry into violence in Andijon in mid-May. The U.S. State Department's assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, Glyn Davies, told RFE/RL's Robert McMahon the United States is not changing policy toward Uzbekistan following the formal call for U.S. forces to vacate a key military base. Davies said Uzbekistan remains strategically important and the country's path to stability lies in comprehensive reforms.
Washington, 5 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Davies said the pending departure of U.S. forces from the Uzbek military base at Karshi-Khanabad does not alter U.S. aims in the region.
"We will continue to stress to the Uzbek government that it is very important to us that democracy and human rights concerns be addressed in Uzbekistan and in the region," Davies said. "So we're going to continue to talk to them about democracy, human rights, economic reform in addition to military cooperation. Those are our strategic interests."
Davies, a U.S. foreign service veteran, was named the State Department's lead official on human rights and democracy issues two months ago. In an interview with RFE/RL this week, he repeated the administration's twin goals of fighting terrorism and boosting democratization efforts in Central Asia.
He said the Uzbek government crackdown in Andijon on 12 and 13 May violated the human rights of "many innocent Uzbek citizens" and must be properly investigated.
"The eyewitness accounts are pretty clear, we collected our own eyewitness accounts in the region," Davies said. "Therefore the Uzbekistan government owes its citizens and the international community a serious, credible, independent investigation of the events, and we, the United States, stand ready to take part in such an investigation in cooperation with partners such as the United Nations, the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe], and others."
Widespread news reports of the government crackdown in Andijon in mid-May told of Uzbek forces fatally shooting hundreds of unarmed civilians. The government of President Islam Karimov has blamed the violence on Islamic extremists and put the death toll at fewer than 200.
So far international pressure has caused a stiffening in the Uzbek position. Karimov has instituted a crackdown on media and human rights activists.
Davies said the United States would step up diplomatic efforts to press the Uzbek regime with the start of the annual cycle of UN meetings in September. He said this would include resolutions in the UN General Assembly and the Geneva-based Human Rights Commission, where Uzbekistan has avoided censure in the recent past.
"Uzbekistan is going to be front and center as an issue that's going to be brought up, and I think you can expect to see action taken by the international community to register displeasure with the conduct of the government in Uzbekistan, and I think you can expect to see resolutions tabled," Davies said.
But the administration of President George W. Bush has faced increasing calls for a more vigorous policy in Central Asia. The U.S. Congress is expected to begin discussions in September on legislation that would link all non-humanitarian aid in Central Asia to progress on human rights and democratization.
Some policy experts say the U.S. government lacks an effective policy in Uzbekistan. Davies defended the administration's actions in the region.
"I would reject this assertion that we were caught flat-footed and we've been making it up ever since," Davies said. "I don't think that's right, but as a general matter you know that U.S. policy is constantly under review and we're constantly seeking ways to deliver a clearer message and a more robust message on issues of concern to us."
Davies declined to discuss charges that the U.S. approach to reforms was driving Uzbekistan closer to Russia and China. The three states belong to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which in July asked the United States to set a deadline for withdrawal of its troops from the region.
Davies acknowledged the challenge in maintaining strategic alliances in Central Asia while seeking to press for democratic change. He said the administration was trying to convey through regular contacts with the Uzbek government that its long-term interests were best served by democratization.
"It's really only through democratic development and responsiveness to the will of populations that these nations, these societies ultimately are going to be stable, prosperous, and moving forward and able to undercut the forces of extremism that are such a challenge in the war on terror," Davies said.
Davies said it was difficult to say how clearly that message was getting through to Tashkent.