Documentation obtained by RFE/RL shows that Uzbek authorities have paid more than a half-million dollars to a U.S. public-relations firm to run a campaign aimed at lifting an international boycott against Uzbek cotton over the country's use of forced labor to harvest the crop.
The documentation includes a copy of an agreement between the Washington-based firm Xenophon Strategies and the export agency at Uzbekistan's Ministry of Investment and Foreign Trade.
The agreement was signed on April 14 by the agency's director, Ulugbek Murodov, and Xenophon Strategies CEO David Fuscus.
Tashkent agreed to pay the firm $585,000 for its services, most of which has been already paid.
A global human rights coalition, the Cotton Campaign, launched a boycott campaign in 2006 to force Uzbekistan to end its long-running state-controlled practice of forced labor -- a policy that forces millions of citizens, including children, to pick cotton and meet harvest quotas.
Foreign Lobby Report, a website that exposes attempts by authoritarian states to influence public opinion, reported in early August that Uzbekistan had started a PR campaign aimed at lifting the cotton boycott.
Foreign Lobby Report says Uzbekistan is the first non-U.S. client of Xenophon Strategies.
The agreement obtained by RFE/RL calls for Xenophon Strategies to prepare and implement strategic efforts to persuade the international community that Uzbekistan has abandoned the practice of using forced labor to harvest cotton.
Lynn Schweisfurth, a specialist on corporate social responsibility at the Berlin-based Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, told RFE/RL that Xenophon Strategies was working together with a German company, Cometis, to carry out the public-opinion campaign for Tashkent.
According to Schweisfurth, the U.S. company paid $6,000 to Cometis in May for its cooperation.
When asked by RFE/RL to comment on the contract, officials at the Uzbek export agency directed all questions to the agency's representative, Murod Rahimov.
But when questioned by RFE/RL by telephone on August 12 about the $585,000 contract, Rahimov said, "it is not possible to answer these questions now," and hung up.
A day after the agreement with the U.S. firm was signed, Tashkent publicly urged the Cotton Campaign to call off its international boycott on Uzbek cotton and textiles.
In its request for an end to the boycott, the Uzbek government cited what it claims has been progress in eliminating forced labor -- as well as economic hardships stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.
In response to RFE/RL's reporting about Uzbekistan's lobby effort, the Cotton Campaign said it has been working with the Uzbek government, international apparel brands, and other stakeholders to end forced labor.
"The Cotton Campaign has been working to develop an innovative approach to re-open the Uzbek cotton sector to facilitate responsible sourcing while protecting labor rights and providing brands the assurances they need," Cotton Campaign coordinator Allison Gill told RFE/RL.
"Public relations is beside the point to this work--the government has clearly demonstrated a political commitment to ending forced labor. What remains is the hard work of finishing the reform process and investing in robust, credible means to monitor supply chains, and provide workers access to grievance and remedy," she said.
Since coming to power in 2016, President Shavkat Mirziyoev has gradually introduced laws aimed at eliminating forced labor and child labor.
Mirziyoev has also banned provincial authorities from forcing students and state workers to pick cotton.
In March, Mirziyoev signed a decree abolishing the state's quota system for cotton production.
But nongovernmental organizations, including the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, say forced labor is still rampant in the cotton sector and that some agricultural reforms closely mimic the previous system.