Uzbekistan

24 September 2013 - The Uzbekistan human rights record is so appalling that the country is considered one of today’s most repressive regimes in the world. Freedom of expression is severely limited. Authorities intensified their crackdown on civil society activists, opposition members, and journalists. Torture is endemic in the criminal justice system. And the government forces more than one million adults and children to harvest cotton every year.

ECCHR has been engaged in various proceedings to demand that the political and economical interests of Western actors do not further undermine human rights in Uzbekistan, but instead, that Germany, the European Union, and the International Labour Organization (ILO) firmly abide by transparent and human rights-based policies, and uphold accountability where needed. To that extent, ECCHR has sought criminal accountability of Uzbek officials for human rights violations and later launched OECD complaint proceedings against seven European cotton trade houses accused of buying Uzbek cotton in violation of international standards for multinational enterprises.

In its fight against state-sponsored forced labor of children and adults in the Uzbek cotton fields, ECCHR is an active member and works in close collaboration with the Cotton Campaign, an international coalition of rights groups advocating for an end to cotton crimes in Uzbekistan.

The Cases against European Cotton Traders

Over decades, every fall the Uzbek government forcefully closed down hundreds of schools. From 1.5 to 2 million Uzbek children, but also their teachers, civil servants, and private employees were forced every year by the state to spend weeks during the harvest season working in precarious conditions to pick cotton.

While in 2012, following international pressure, the Uzbek government reduced the number of young children in the harvest, it dramatically increased the forced mobilization of children aged 15 years as well as of students and adults. Also, the reprisals against those who oppose the practice of forced labor have been greatly expanded.

Uzbekistan is one of the largest cotton exporters in the world; cotton generates about 20 % of Uzbekistan’s GDP, accounting for over 1 billion US Dollar. Uzbekistan implements a command economy with a quota system for the whole country’s cotton production, over which the government has the monopoly. Such command economy is the root cause of forced labor of both children and adults, in violation of ILO Convention 105. As such, children working within that command economy are suffering from the “worst forms” of child labor, in violation of ILO Convention 182.

Most, if not all cotton profits end up in the hands of elites at the top of the Uzbek government, while farmers, workers and children families do not benefit from any of it. The ILO has repeatedly called on the country to allow an independent mission involving international government representatives, trade unions and employers' organizations with unhindered access to the cotton fields to observe the cotton harvest. Although Uzbekistan has ratified the relevant ILO Conventions, this has been denied so far. For the first time the government now has agreed to a monitoring of the harvest in fall 2013 by ILO experts. Essential standards of the required mission have however not been met. The monitoring report of the ILO is expected in February 2014.

Between October 2010 and January 2011, ECCHR submitted seven complaints to National Contact Points (NCPs) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Germany, Switzerland, France and Great Britain. The complaints targeted European traders who directly or indirectly purchase Uzbek cotton that was harvested through forced child labor. They were submitted in collaboration with the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF), Sherpa (France) and Swiss attorney Guido Ehrler and are now formally concluded with Joint Statements between the parties respectively Final statements by the NCPs.

The companies who have acknowledged that they purchase Uzbek cotton directly or indirectly (with one exception, see below) had initially pledged to implement specific measures – negotiated with ECCHR – to positively influence the local situation. ECCHR has reserved the right to file a new complaint against some of those actors, depending on the results obtained.

The cotton trading enterprises have not shown serious willingness to engage in a critical and constructive dialogue with the complainants or accept their suggestions over the course of the agreed time period for cooperation. ECCHR therefore abandoned the cooperation with the cotton traders in December 2012. In the French procedure, the NCP issued a Final Statement in which it took a position on whether the OECD Guidelines had been violated. It held that “child labor and forced labor on Uzbek cotton fields, under all circumstances, constitute a flagrant and characterized violation of the OECD Guidelines”. In general, the NCP recalled “that the trade of products resulting from forced child labor, where ever it may occur, amounts to a flagrant and characterized violation of the OECD Guidelines”.

For its part, the French company Devcot S.A. committed to the NCP to refrain from purchasing Uzbek cotton until forced child labor is ended in Uzbekistan. ECCHR and its partner organizations had accused the corporations of violating the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises by purchasing Uzbek cotton. Forced child labor in Uzbekistan differs from that in other regions of the world in that it is organized comprehensively and systematically by the State itself. From the perspective of ECCHR the complete termination of trade relations therefore is the best way to deal with the situation in Uzbekistan.

Two and a half years after the first of seven OECD complaints was filed, ECCHR has carried out a comprehensive evaluation of the impact of the complaints both on the situation in Uzbekistan and, more generally, on NCPs´ practice.

The financial sector is sensitive to the topic. The French financial institution BNP Paribas, one of the largest banks in the Euro zone, has decided in 2012 to suspend the financing of cotton trade from a country in Central Asia, because that country is using forced labor in the harvest season. Read more

OECD procedings’ final statements

Final statement British NCP - Cargill Final statement British NCP - Cargill (135.5 KiB)

Reports and other documents

High Level Hearing, March 2012

In a high-level filmed hearing on Uzbekistan organized by ECCHR with the support of several partners, entitled “From the Uzbek Cotton Fields to the Termez Military Base” in March 2012, prominent experts participated in the hearing to discuss Uzbekistan’s state-sponsored forced child labor in the cotton production and the relationship with the West. Former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray referred to the country as a “totalitarian dictatorship”, while Scott Horton, Harper’s Magazine, called the government “the world’s largest family-owned business.”

With a southern border with Afghanistan, Uzbekistan is considered an important strategic partner for the countries involved in the NATO-led efforts against the Taliban. For a decade now, Germany has leased from the Uzbek government for millions of Euros a year the Termez military base hosting German troops. In the meantime, the human rights situation in Uzbekistan still dramatically fails to improve, including since the EU lifting of the sanctions imposed in the aftermath of the Andijan 2005 massacre.

View seven compelling short films of the experts’ testimonies, realized by ecofilm sustainable film production.

The Case against former Uzbek Interior Minister Zakir Almatov

On 12 December 2005, a criminal complaint against then-Uzbek minister of interior Zakir Almatov, the Uzbek head of secret service Rustan Inojatov, and others, was filed before the German Federal Public Prosecutor by Wolfgang Kaleck, founder of ECCHR and now its Secretary General, on behalf of Human Rights Watch and eight Uzbek victims, for torture and crimes against humanity. The complaint, based on detailed witness testimonies, contains concrete allegations of torture in government custody and lays out the factual and legal responsibilities of Almatov and eleven other high level members of the Uzbek national security circle for the 13 May 2005 Andijan massacre and its following crackdown.

On that day in May 2005, in the eastern city of Andijan, heavily armed troops from the Uzbek Ministry of Interior and National Security Service had fired into a large crowd of protesters, most of them unarmed, killing several hundred men and women. Following a violent crackdown on civil society in the aftermath of the massacre, human rights organizations, media outlets, and various UN agencies were expelled from the country. The Andijan massacre led to the European Union’s targeted sanctions on Uzbekistan, including visa bans against top Uzbek officials, with Almatov prominently featured on the list.

Despite this, Germany allowed Almatov’s to enter its territory on “humanitarian grounds” in December 2005 for a cancer treatment. In response, the criminal complaint was filed on behalf of Uzbek victims. Almatov’s presence on German soil rendered local jurisdictions competent to investigate and try him, but he departed following the filing of the complaint.

The German Federal Public Prosecutor rejected the opening of investigations in early 2006. When Inojatov, the Uzbek head of secret service also prominently named in the criminal complaint, visited Germany in November 2006, the Federal Public Prosecutor refused to commence any action, and argued that Germany’s official invitation to Inojatov granted him personal immunity from prosecution. It is still unclear which German authority had officially invited Inojatov and for what reason, but he, like Almatov, remains one of the main suspects for the massacre in Andijan, for which no Uzbek official has been, to date, held accountable for.