United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made a five-day, five-country tour through Central Asia last week. There was a long list of topics for Ban to bring up as he made his way through Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan but the big question for many was whether he would press the region's governments on human rights issues.
To the secretary-general's credit, he did. And he picked Turkmenistan -- the country with, arguably, the worst rights record of the five -- as the venue to deliver his most blistering criticisms.
The problem is, almost no one in Turkmenistan, or in Central Asia, heard the message.
Addressing a group of students in Ashgabat on June 13, Ban said, "I have heard concerns about the deterioration of some aspects of human rights -- a shrinking of democratic space."
He continued: "There may not be protests on the streets. But the denial of free expression leads to a brewing underneath and ultimately a breeding ground for extremist ideologies."
"The failure to respect human rights, build accountable institutions, promote political participation, and ensure opportunity for all creates gaps," Ban said. "The wider the gaps, the greater the openings for violent extremists. I see this phenomenon on the rise in the region and it troubles me greatly."
At a briefing with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, Ban reportedly asked for concrete steps to improve Turkmenistan's rights record and specifically requested independent observers be allowed to visit prisons.
Ban also mentioned the need to "move toward media pluralism, freedom of expression and access to information, including through social media," saying, "A robust civil society is crucial for national development."
The UN chief called on Turkmenistan's government "to strengthen its partnership with nascent civil society in Turkmenistan."
These were good words, though any Turkmen citizen delivering such a public oratory would likely be quickly hustled to jail. It should also be noted that few citizens in Turkmenistan have access to the Internet and Turkmenistan does not really have anything that resembles a genuine civil society,
But Ban said exactly what rights activists were hoping to hear while he was in Central Asia. The problem is, the secretary-general's speech was not broadcast live and his message was definitely lost in local media coverage.
Turkmen state media reported on Ban's visit, saying that Turkmenistan was working with the UN to improve democratic institutions and gender equality, and to alleviate the effects of climate change. Berdymukhammedov was shown discussing Afghanistan and "reliable and stable transit of energy resources to world markets" with Ban, the latter topic being a perennial in Berdymukhammedov's meetings with almost every international figure.
The situation was similar in Uzbekistan. Ban met with Uzbek President Islam Karimov and urged Karimov to stop using forced labor in cotton fields and improve the treatment and conditions of prisoners.
Uzbek media focused on Karimov discussing the security situation in Afghanistan, "the growing radicalization, conflicts, violence," and the problems of the shrinking Aral Sea with Ban.
Curiously, Uzbek TV's First Channel reported that Karimov spoke with Ban about the secretary-general's brief visit to Osh, Kyrgyzstan, during the fifth anniversary of ethnic violence there between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. The report showed Karimov agreeing with comments Ban made in Osh that "the resolution of this problem has still not been finished. There has been no investigation and no serious consequences not only for those who committed this carnage, but also for those who ordered it. They should have been punished."
No mention of Andijon there, however.
A statement posted on the Uzbek government's website said Ban praised Uzbekistan for "ensuring the rule of law and protecting human rights, safeguarding motherhood and childhood, improving the education system."
Ban is far from being the first foreign dignitary to carry a critical message to Central Asia about failures to respect rights only to have state media selectively report a trip full of praise for governmental policies. But the UN secretary-general's recent trip does underscore once more the difficulty heads of state and leaders of international organizations have in getting their message to the people of Central Asia.