Torture prevention in Uzbekistan: my return visit

This post was contributed by Professor Bill Bowring of Birkbeck’s School of Law

In March 2012 I travelled to Uzbekistan for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to lecture to practising defence advocates on torture prevention. In October 2013 I was invited back, and in this blog I explain Uzbekistan’s global significance, its paradoxical engagement with United Nations treaties and mechanisms, and my own activities.

This was not my first visit to this Central Asian country of some 28.5 million people. It is about the size of California, which has a population of 38 million. I have visited several times from the 1990s, carrying out human rights training.

The population of the capital, Tashkent, is nearly 2.5 million, the largest in the region, and more than twice the size of Britain’s second city, Birmingham. Having been largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1966, it is a modern city. Tashkent has been named the “cultural capital of the Islamic world”, and has the earliest written Qur’an, as well as a beautifully decorated three line metro system, and since 2012 a high speed train line to Samarkand. Tourists know Uzbekistan for the Silk Road, and for the gorgeous historical cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. But Tashkent is the business, industrial and educational powerhouse.

Uzbekistan is a very serious and ambitious regional power. It has the largest population of the Central Asian states, double the population its nearest rival, Kazakhstan. There are substantial Uzbek minorities in its neighbours: 3% in Kazakhstan, 5% in Turkmenistan, 14% in Kyrgyzstan, and 15.5% in Tajikistan. In Afghanistan, General Abdul Rashid Dostum leads the Uzbek minority, about 10% of the Afghan population; and the most effective military force in the country, never defeated by the mujahedin or the Taliban. Uzbekistan sees itself as the regional leader. Uzbek is a Turkic language and there is substantial Turkish investment and involvement. I stayed in a hotel which is part of a Turkish chain, though I was able to enjoy some delicious traditional plov, rice with lamb, herbs and spices, in an enormous House of Plov.

As The Guardian reported on 9 October, British universities are, controversially, moving in. Westminster has set up a campus in Uzbekistan and at least five others, Cambridge, Bath, East Anglia, the London College of Fashion and London Metropolitan University, have partnerships with colleges in Uzbekistan.

That Uzbekistan is an authoritarian state is beyond question. 75 year old President Islam Karimov has been in power since 1989 when he became First Secretary of the Uzbek Communist Party. He has been elected President three times by overwhelming majorities in elections which have been condemned as unfree and unfair.

According to the United States State Department’s Country Report for 2012 on human rights practices in 2012: “The most significant human rights problems included: torture and abuse of detainees…; denial of due process and fair trial; restrictions on religious freedom; … incommunicado and prolonged detention; harsh prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association; on civil society activity;  and on freedom of movement; violence against women; and forced labor in cotton harvesting… human rights activists, journalists, and others who criticized the government [suffered] harassment, arbitrary arrest, and politically motivated prosecution and detention.”

That is, egregious violations of human rights, carried out by a strongly centralised regime, under a president for life, in which rights are subordinated to development.

Yet Uzbekistan participates energetically in UN human rights mechanisms. In 1994, after the collapse in 1991 of the USSR, Uzbekistan acceded to the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, and in 1995 to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and – the Convention Against Torture (CAT).

In 2006 the UN created the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism, in which the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States are reviewed by the UN’s Human Rights Council. On 24 April 2013 the Council considered Uzbekistan’s second report – the first was in 2008 – and over one hundred recommendations were made by member states.

And on 30 October 2013, immediately after my visit, Uzbekistan defended in Geneva, in a public hearing which may be seen on You Tube, its Fourth Periodic Report to the UN Committee Against Torture. Its representative, Professor Akmal Saidov, Chairman of the National Human Rights Centre of Uzbekistan (NHRC), described this as a “fiery dialogue”.

Indeed, it was Professor Saidov and his Centre who invited me this time, and the British Embassy in Tashkent which paid for my visit. I had four engagements in my three days in Tashkent – with a ten hour journey via Istanbul overnight each way. It was made very clear that I was not representing the UK or the Foreign Office, but was in Uzbekistan as an independent expert.

On 24 and 25 October I attended an international conference organized by the NHRC with Uzbek and foreign experts to discuss human rights in Uzbekistan and international best practice. I gave a presentation on UK legislation and institutions for the protection of human rights. I also participated in a meeting between the NHRC and various UN agencies on the implementation of recommendations following Uzbekistan’s recent UPR report to the UN Human Rights Council.

I also spoke, on the morning of 25 October, to a large audience at the Training Centre for Lawyers. I gave a lecture on the British judicial system and the training of legal professionals in the UK, to future judges, practising lawyers, government officials and academics. There was tremendous interest and many questions.

On 26 October I visited the Uzbek Human Rights Ombudsman, Mrs Rashidova together with the British Ambassador, George Edgar, and Professor Saidov. I gave a presentation on the UK experience since 2009 in establishing a National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) under the CAT. Uzbek officials and legal experts discussed the establishment of an Uzbek NPM and Uzbekistan’s implementation of the CAT in the context of the hearing in Geneva on 30 October.

That evening I attended the inaugural event of the British Alumni Network, with over 40 graduates of Master’s degrees in the UK, many supported by Chevening and other scholarships.

Was my visit simply an opportunity for attempted window-dressing by Uzbekistan?  I argue that Uzbekistan’s engagement with international human rights, the enormous effort put into writing reports and defending them in Geneva, and the internet publicity which does not go unnoticed by Uzbek civil society, do indeed bear fruit. As Professor Saidov emphasised in Geneva, Uzbekistan has recently abolished the death penalty, reduced its prison incarceration rate to the level of the UK, and begun to introduce habeas corpus.

But most importantly, Uzbeks become ever more conscious of the yawning gap between their country’s proclaimed compliance with international standards, and its actual practice. I think I have made a very small but significant contribution to this process.

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