A fatal compromise

March 29, 2007

The EU’s timidity over human rights abuses in Central Asia will ultimately undermine its strategic objectives in the region.

The failure of the European Union to condemn the politically motivated arrest of Umida Niyazova, a translator for Human Rights Watch in Uzbekistan, is a small example of Brussels’ apparent determination to prioritise commercial and security interests over promoting human rights and democracy in Central Asia. This policy will surely backfire: it will help feed instability and repression, and ultimately undermine the EU’s strategic objectives in the region.

Niyazova’s offence is no secret. She is a human rights defender who has worked courageously to help expose the abuses of the Uzbek government. She was arrested in January and faces charges of illegal border crossing and contraband. If found guilty she could face a 10-year jail sentence or more. Not only has the EU not taken any public position on Niyazova’s arrest, or indeed those of the other 13 human rights defenders currently in detention, but it is pressing ahead with its efforts to water down the sanctions imposed against Uzbekistan following the Andijan massacre of May 2005.

According to the “realists” among European diplomats, it is essential for the EU to engage constructively with Central Asia. Economic pressure, conditionality, and (in the case of Uzbekistan) sanctions have not worked, they say; and with Russia, China and the US all engaged in the Great Game for influence in Central Asia, the EU’s human rights concerns are damaging its competitive edge and undermining its interests. This short-sighted argument was neatly encapsulated in a recent paper prepared jointly by the EU’s Council Policy Unit and the European Commission.

There is nothing wrong with constructive engagement, even with authoritarian states such as those of Central Asia. But engagement needs to take place within a transparent and strict framework of benchmarks designed specifically to help nurture respect for human rights and democratic government. This has worked reasonably well as a model for EU relations with the states of the western Balkans and of the south Caucasus. There is no reason why it should not work for Central Asia too.

But in Central Asia the EU is moving in the opposite direction. In Uzbekistan, for example, the Germans are pushing for relaxation of sanctions even though repression of human rights defenders, like Niyazova, continues, and even though EU demands for an independent inquiry into the Andijan massacre remain unmet. Such moves send a very clear message not only to the Uzbek government but to repressive governments around the world that the EU is not serious about addressing human rights abuses as part of its engagement.

As for the argument that sanctions and conditionality have not worked, this should not be a reason to abandon them altogether. Rather, it is a reason to give sanctions more time to work or to make them smarter. The issue is not that the EU is inherently weak or that it has no leverage – it does, even in those parts of the world where it cannot hold out the carrot of EU membership – but whether it is using what instruments of leverage it has to their fullest possible extent.

Of course, the EU is right to protect its interests in Central Asia. The region is sandwiched between China, Russia, Iran and Afghanistan and it produces a lot of oil and gas. But can it be true that the EU’s interests in such an important part of the world would be best served by weakening its commitment to promoting human rights? If the west’s experience in the Middle East over the past decades has taught us anything it is surely that turning a blind eye to torture and political repression has backfired – and has helped to nurture conflict, instability and anti-western extremism.(Tom Porteous,Guardian).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: