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EU Plans To Push Central Asian States Harder On Human Rights

The EU will "further enhance its efforts to address the serious challenges to human rights in the region," the document says.

BRUSSELS -- The European Union plans to step up efforts to address "serious challenges to human rights" in Central Asia, according to a strategy document seen by RFE/RL.

The EU Strategy For Central Asia, set to be endorsed by EU foreign ministers when they meet in Luxembourg on June 22, updates a 2007 document outlining the union's general policy goals in several fields in relation to the five former Soviet republics in the region: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Although short on concrete actions on human rights, the document says EU priorities in Central Asia include promotion of respect for the freedoms of assembly, association, expression, and religion or belief, as well as encouraging the rights of women, children, and minorities.

There is also a pledge to support efforts to eradicate torture.

The EU will "further enhance its efforts to address the serious challenges to human rights in the region," the document says.

Like the United States, the 28-country EU has long struggled to pursue close ties with governments in energy-rich, strategically located Central Asia without taking its eye off persistent concerns about human rights abuses and a lack of democracy in the region, where three of the countries' authoritarian leaders have been in power for more than 20 years.

The document says that human rights defenders in Central Asia deserve special attention and EU support, and calls for greater involvement of civil society organizations in its "human rights dialogue" with the five countries.

The dialogues, held annually on a diplomatic level, are among only a few forums in which Brussels can raise human rights cases with the Central Asian states. Critics say there has been little noticeable impact so far.

According to the strategy document, another priority is cooperation on the rule of law: The EU is considering linking budget-support programs to specific anticorruption measures in the Central Asian states, it says.

On security, the paper says the region faces a number of challenges such as foreign fighters, radicalization, drug trafficking, and water and border disputes. It says the EU aims to further develop both bilateral and regional security dialogues with the Central Asian countries, ensuring stronger involvement of Afghanistan -- which borders Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.

Another idea is to have a dialogue with EU companies investing in Central Asia to discuss how the five countries can become more attractive to investment from EU businesses and how the EU can promote responsible business conduct and corporate governance.

There is little mention of what the EU specifically wants to achieve in its bilateral relations with the Central Asian states.

The bilateral cooperation is regulated through Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PCA) that have entered into force with four of the states. Kazakhstan and the EU initialed an enhanced PCA in January, meaning that Astana now has the closest ties with the EU of the five, while the PCA with Turkmenistan is yet to enter into force.

In the updated strategy, EU member states underline that the PCA with Turkmenistan would help develop the full potential of EU's relationship with the country.

The European Parliament has delayed voting on the matter, however, after its foreign affairs committee recently expressed reservations over the human rights situation in Turkmenistan.

Regional powers Russia and China, both of which have been seeking to increase their influence in Central Asian, are not mentioned by name in the paper.

It states that the "the EU should continue to enhance its efforts to promote dialogue with neighbors of the Central Asian countries and other states active in the region," and that the EU will "take into account existing regional synergies and links with neighboring countries in implementing its strategy."

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.