Friday 18 July 2008

The Ghost of Sanctions (Not Quite) Past

This article originally appeared in the European Voice on 18 July 2008. The EU's policy toward Uzbekistan had once been hailed; it then became an example of unprincipled policy-making at its worst.


Attempting to ignore its own policy on Uzbekistan is becoming a favourite pastime for the EU. The latest in the sorry saga of EU sanctions against Tashkent is the decision not to include the Central Asian country on the formal agenda for next week’s meeting of EU foreign ministers.

This ‘oversight’ is somewhat surprising given that in April, the ministers’ monthly meeting – known as GAERC, for the General Affairs and External Relations Council – agreed to review the progress made by the Uzbek authorities after three months. Of course, nothing is particularly clear when it comes to the EU’s position on Uzbekistan: ‘after three months’ could mean any time, and sticklers might say ‘review’ doesn’t actually mean ‘discuss’.

This fits a fairly predictable pattern of late. If the EU has a way to avoid Uzbekistan, it will take it.

The leader that lost its way

It wasn’t always like this. When the EU imposed sanctions on Uzbekistan in 2005 in response to the state’s massacre of some 750 civilians during a street demonstration in the eastern city of Andijan, it was hailed as a significant step toward a principled and united European foreign policy. Here was the EU taking a real lead, imposing an arms embargo and targeted sanctions on regime leaders when others, notably the US, were nowhere to be seen on the issue.

Unfortunately, drip by drip over the past three years, the EU has weakened its sanctions, initially removing some names from the list of targeted officials and then, in autumn 2007, suspending the sanctions for six-months. In April, foreign ministers agreed on a second half-year suspension, though they stipulated a review after three months.

Now, with the July GAERC upon us, it seems this has been forgotten, along with the Andijan massacre, the reason for imposing sanctions in the first place.

Germany, which has a military base in the southern Uzbek city of Termez, has been leading the charge in Brussels to eliminate these sanctions entirely, which is exactly what will happen in October, when they are set to expire without a unanimous agreement of the 27. Few if any other member states seem willing to push back anymore.

Of course, no one can openly use Termez as an excuse for officially forgiving the regime its crime of mass murder, so the excuse for both suspensions and the likely termination of sanctions has been alleged improvements in human rights in Uzbekistan. A couple of human-rights activists have been released, and the government has made promises on other issues such as implementation of habeas corpus and an end to the death penalty.

But clearly with a regime noted for “systematic torture”, to use the words of the UN special rapporteur on torture, and annually rounding up tens of thousands of children for forced labour in the cotton fields, such pledges are dubious. If EU ministers were actually to conduct the promised three-month review of their suspended sanctions, it is very hard to see how, based on the overall human-rights situation in Uzbekistan, they could ever justify anything but continued sanctions.

Remember Andijan?

Even more importantly, however, none of the EU’s current thinking addresses the reason the EU imposed sanctions in the first place. The sanctions were never about general human rights issues but about the Andijan massacre specifically, demanding among other things an independent investigation of the mass killings and the torture, forced confessions and show trials that followed those events. EU foreign ministers now seem content to ignore their original justification for sanctions just as they are ignoring their three-month review.

Thankfully, not everyone is as ready to drop this issue as EU foreign ministers seem willing to. The Danish journalist Michael Andersen has just finished a film, “Andijan: A Massacre Foretold, Forgiven, Forgotten”, which focuses on the West’s complicity with the Uzbek regime and its willingness to help cover up the atrocities in Uzbekistan, before and after the massacre. His film, which is appearing on national TV stations around the continent, also demonstrates how European citizens have been kept in the dark about our leaders’ manoeuvrings. Hopefully, it will play a role in reversing that part of the problem.

Of course, GAERC agendas change right up to the last minute. There is still an opportunity for either a member state or the French presidency to raise Uzbekistan. Failing that, the messages to Tashkent is clear: take your time, you’re off the hook.

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