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11 am

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC): I am pleased to initiate this timely debate, which provides the House with a perhaps overdue opportunity to examine Government policy on Uzbekistan.

I start with two quotations. The Minister will recognise the first, because he referred to it in a speech on 25 November:

The second quote is from one of our ambassadors, who said:

The Minister was speaking in general terms, but the ambassador was referring to a real situation—that in Uzbekistan. I want to examine the assessment that the ambassador made of human rights in that country in a speech that I understand was sanctioned by the Foreign Office. That assessment should be taken more seriously by the House and the Government in their dealings with the Uzbek authorities. I also want to ensure that, having captured one tyrant this week in Iraq, we do not allow or encourage another to rise in Uzbekistan.

Although, of the former Soviet Republics, it is Georgia that has captured our attention in the past few weeks, it is perhaps Uzbekistan that should give us the greatest concern about human rights and democracy in the long run. It is an authoritarian state with limited civil rights, and neither the January 2003 referendum to extend the president's term of office, nor previous elections, were judged to be free or fair by international standards. The Parliament consists almost entirely of officials appointed by the president and members of parties that support him, and meets for just a few days a year. The Government influence the courts heavily in both civil and criminal cases.

The human rights record remains very poor, with both the police and the national security service—the former KGB—committing numerous serious human rights abuses, including causing the death of several citizens in custody, torture and beatings. The UN special rapporteur on torture visited the country in November 2002 and found poor prison conditions and arbitrary detentions by the police, often for bribes, particularly of Muslims suspected of "extremist"—that is, non-state sanctioned—sympathies. There was also planting of evidence on persons. Some 6,500 persons were in prison for political or religious reasons.

The Government in Uzbekistan restrict freedom of speech and press, and ban unauthorised public meetings and demonstrations, and the police forcibly disrupt peaceful protests. Internal passports are required for movement within the country and permission is

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required to move from one city or district to another. The Government restrict freedom of religion. Members of domestic human rights groups are abused and targeted for arrest. Only one such domestic group has been recognised to date. In short, citizens cannot exercise their right to change their Government peacefully.

That damning criticism comes not from Human Rights Watch or the much-maligned Amnesty International, but from the 2002 country report on Uzbekistan by the US State Department bureau of democracy, human rights and labour. Those are comments to which we should pay a great deal of attention. Perhaps we should add to them another matter that, for understandable reasons, may not concern the US Government so much: the use of the death penalty in Uzbekistan. Its use is a state secret, but Human Rights Watch has identified at least 22 people who were sentenced to death last year. When that is taken with the report of the UN special rapporteur on torture, who found that torture was systematic and that


its use becomes even more abhorrent.

Independent human rights organisations such Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have scores of examples of the abuses faced by peaceful opponents of the Uzbek regime. Let me share just two examples with the House. Two women, Larisa Vdovina and human rights defender Elena Urlaeva, were forcibly confined in a psychiatric hospital to stop their human rights activities. They were detained on 27 August 2002 during a demonstration outside the Ministry of Justice building to protest against human rights abuses. They were transferred to Tashkent City psychiatric hospital the next day. Elena Urlaeva was released at the end of December 2002. The whole episode is horribly reminiscent of the way in which the old Soviet system abused the psychiatric hospital system.

I will continue with the evidence that, at least in Uzbekistan, Soviet-style suppression continues under another name. The second example is even more grisly. In August 2002, the body of Muzafar Avazov was brought from Jaslyk prison to his family for burial. He had been imprisoned for membership of a proscribed Islamic party. In May 2002, Human Rights Watch reported that prison authorities had beaten Muzafar Avazov and put him in a punishment cell for stating that nothing could stop him performing his prayers. Prisoners are often placed in such cells for praying or refusing to ask for forgiveness from the Uzbek president. A 35-year-old father of four, Avazov's body showed signs of burns on the legs, buttocks, lower back and arms. Some 60 to 70 per cent. of the body was burned. Doctors who saw the body reported that such burns could have been caused only by immersing Avazov in boiling water. They also reported that there was a large, bloody wound on the back of the head, heavy bruising on the forehead and side of the neck, and that his hands had no fingernails.

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Uzbekistan has perhaps a worse human rights record than Zimbabwe—I know that that will interest you, Sir Nicholas—but it has received little attention in this House. Its importance is due not only to the perspicacity of the Minister when he reworded John Donne for a globalised world, but to the fact that both the US Government and the UK Government have regarded Uzbekistan as an ally in their war on terrorism. I understand that, to that end, the country has received more than $200 million of aid from the US Government, including some $70 million used directly to support its state security system, which, as I have made clear, is oppressive to say the least. Uzbekistan has also been given favourable treatment under the UK arms sales regime, which I will consider later.

Hon. Members may well be aware that certain countries, such as Zimbabwe, Burma, Argentina, Cyprus, India and Pakistan, feature on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office list of territories in respect of which arms restrictions of one sort or another apply. All told, some 40 countries are on the list, but unfortunately Uzbekistan is not one of them. Indeed, despite the prevalence of internal repression, Uzbekistan is one of those favoured few countries for which open individual export licences are granted. In 2002, five such licences were granted, mainly for dual-use equipment.

Uzbekistan is also supported by EU overseas aid. The EU-Uzbekistan Co-operation Council implements a partnership agreement. However, the EU and the UK seem to have missed an opportunity to wring from the Uzbek Government specific commitments on human rights, allied to that partnership agreement. Similarly, both the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development have seen their meek criticisms of the Uzbek Administration treated with disdain, to the extent that, at the meeting of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development this year in Uzbekistan, the president did not condemn the use of torture, as he was expected to do.

Baroness Symons, in the other place, has described the relationship between the UK and Uzbekistan as one of critical engagement:

To date there has been precious little dialogue and little understanding of obligations, certainly on the part of the Uzbek Government. Only two weeks ago, they cancelled an expected conference on the use of the death penalty.

I conclude with some specific questions for the Minister on our relationship with Uzbekistan and offer some suggestions as to how we might improve that relationship to the benefit of human rights. First, I understand there will be a further meeting of the EU-Uzbek Co-operation Council early next year. Will the Minister confirm the location and date of that meeting and state what specific obligations under human rights he expects the council and the partnership agreement to set out as a condition of further EU support for Uzbekistan?

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Will the Minister take the opportunity to look at the words of Baroness Symons, who said that

Although I accept the validity of those words, I ask the Minister to consider the fact that they are an inadequate safeguard against unwelcome exports under the open licence system. In other countries—Israel comes to mind—we have seen exports with dual use used in a military manner and an offensive way against a civilian population. We should not allow exports from this country to be used in that manner in Uzbekistan. Will the Minister review the open licence system and confirm that the Government find the Uzbek record on human rights so poor as to demand an arms embargo?

Will the Minister pressure the Uzbek Government to ensure that the conference on the death penalty, which is scheduled to take place on 5 December, goes ahead, and that civil rights groups in Uzbekistan have the opportunity to take part without harassment? Will he urge the Uzbek authorities to make public their statistics on the use of the death penalty and to disclose the locations of prisoners' burials, which are often withheld from families, and to release their bodies to their families?

Will the Minister ensure that the UK takes a leading role in the EU, the International Monetary Fund, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe in setting firm standards and a timetable for improvement on the record of human rights, to be met by the Uzbek Government as a condition of any further aid? I believe that the answers to those questions are, at least in part, key tests of the Minister's claim, made in his speech on 25 November, that

I have yet to mention the name of the Uzbek President, Islam Karimov. He has dominated the leadership of Uzbekistan since 1989, when he was the Communist party leader of what was then the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. The following year, he became Uzbek president and he continued in the post after independence. He has won every election on grounds that are dubious by any international standards. He won his first election with 88 per cent. of the vote. In 2003, his Parliament, filled with his supporters, passed a law granting him immunity from prosecution for his activities as president should he cease to hold the post. The Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, maintains a Soviet-style dictatorship over his country. In Uzbekistan, we see the continuation of the malignant human rights record that existed under the USSR.

I hope that the Minister will assure the Chamber that in the future we will not have cause to be ashamed of our support of and co-operation with the Uzbek president, and that all steps necessary will be taken to ensure that the human rights record of Uzbekistan—which some would argue has improved slightly over the past few months—continues to improve and that Uzbekistan meets the standards that we should demand of it as a country that receives aid from both the UK Government and the EU.

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11.15 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Bill Rammell) : As I have indicated both to you, Sir Nicholas, and to the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas), I apologise for the fact that I shall conclude my remarks before the normal end time of the debate owing to the fact that I have, for want of a better parliamentary phrase, to leg it to the Chamber to answer the first question at Foreign Office questions.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having initiated the debate. The discussion is timely, given that there has been significant parliamentary and media interest in Uzbekistan, and I welcome the opportunity to put on the record the Government's position and policy.

Our relations with Uzbekistan are generally constructive—the characterisation of constructive engagement put forward by my noble Friend Baroness Symons in the other place is correct. However, despite that constructive relationship, we have serious concerns about human rights and the lack of economic and political reforms. Uzbekistan became an independent state only when the former Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, so the relationship is relatively young and is developing.

Uzbekistan is developing its relations with us through multilateral forums such as the European Union. In addition, it is a member of international financial institutions including the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which held its annual meeting in Uzbekistan in May 2003. There was some criticism of that move at the time, but the meeting, chaired by our then Secretary of State for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), provided an opportunity for a free and frank discussion between the international community, the Uzbek authorities and Uzbek civil society about the importance of economic and political openness. Before the meeting, the EBRD agreed a country strategy for Uzbekistan; it set seven key benchmarks for progress on economic, political and human rights reforms. The clear implication of the strategy is, rightly, to warn the Uzbek authorities that insufficient progress against the benchmarks could lead to the EBRD adopting a reduced lending strategy. We support that stance. The benchmarks are due to be reviewed by the EBRD in early 2004 and we are strongly encouraging the Uzbek authorities to make substantive progress against them.

The hon. Gentleman referred to our relationship with Uzbekistan and the war against terror. We are grateful for Uzbek support, particularly in relation to Afghanistan. Uzbekistan was also strongly supportive of the coalition efforts in Iraq. The important role that Uzbekistan has played in the war against terror is reflected in high-level exchanges of defence visits—most recently, that by the Uzbek Defence Minister in October. That provided an important opportunity for us to encourage further reform in the Uzbek armed forces and Uzbek participation in international peacekeeping operations. A memorandum of understanding that was signed will enable our armed forces to assist the Uzbeks with those goals. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would support that initiative.

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Uzbekistan is a key player in a region of increasing strategic importance to the UK, so defence co-operation is important. However, while bilateral defence co-operation is effective, it is important to note that the Uzbek armed forces are not implicated in human rights violations.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned defence exports. Uzbekistan has not traditionally been a market for UK defence exporters. I have seen a number of press articles—I think that he quoted from them—accusing the Government of breaking their own arms export guidelines and selling weapons to Uzbekistan. It is necessary to answer that accusation by stating clearly that the UK has not sanctioned arms sales to Uzbekistan. The equipment covered in the export licences that have been granted consists of replacement components for civil passenger aircraft, goods for the oil and gas industry—those were sent for rental purposes only to companies operating in Uzbekistan—and goods to be used by a named UK exporter in Uzbekistan.

Relations with Uzbekistan are also developing well in a number of other areas—for example, education and culture. In May, we signed a memorandum of understanding on education at the opening of the British-Uzbek university in Tashkent. The British Council is also active in Uzbekistan: it has helped more than 200 Uzbek scholars to study in the UK. Through the Chevening scholarship programme, which is a flagship initiative for the Foreign Office, the Government have funded more than 40 Uzbek students to study in the UK.

Importantly, we are developing a dialogue on trade and economic issues. Uzbekistan is an attractive potential market and has substantial resources, including gas, oil, gold and silver. The previous high-level British visit to Uzbekistan, focusing on trade and investment, was undertaken in September by the lord mayor of London. As well as promoting the City of London's financial and business services, the lord mayor raised with Uzbek Ministers some challenges that face British businesses in doing business in Uzbekistan. In terms of deepening business-to-business contacts, which is a driver of necessary reform, that was an important initiative to undertake.

There has been progress. In October, the Uzbeks signed an agreement with the IMF that commits Uzbekistan to full current account currency convertibility. We welcome that, although for the move to bring benefits to the Uzbek economy the authorities need urgently to complement it with other essential economic reforms. We raise that issue in all our bilateral relations. A well managed and open economy is important not only for Uzbekistan and the prosperity of its people; it is equally important for its neighbours. Regional trade and transport co-operation need development. High tariffs and import duties, along with the unpredictable border closures that I mentioned, mean that Uzbek consumers are forced to pay higher prices for goods than they would otherwise have to. Those policies also adversely affect the well-being of Uzbekistan's smaller neighbours—the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan—yet creating the conditions that allow trade to flourish would benefit not only those neighbours but Uzbekistan itself. There is genuinely a mutual interest in these issues.

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There has been progress on some issues of regional co-operation, notably security. An example is the establishment of the Shanghai co-operation council. Regional security is important in countering the threat posed by Islamic extremists in central Asia—a threat that we would do well not to underestimate.

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has called for the overthrow of President Karimov's Government. In 2000, that movement made armed raids into Uzbekistan. IMU fighters received training and support from the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Although the IMU suffered serious losses during Operation Enduring Freedom, it is still active in central Asia. We support efforts to curtail the activities of the IMU, which we proscribed in October 2002. It is a threat to Uzbekistan's internal security and, through its links to al-Qaeda, to British interests and those of the wider international community.

It is important to point out that our concern about Islamic extremism in Uzbekistan and central Asia more generally does not mean that we turn a blind eye to human rights abuses or regard perceived threats to security as justification for imprisoning young men simply on religious grounds—far from it. On that point, I concur with the hon. Gentleman.

We want a prosperous and stable Uzbekistan, based on the rule of law and an open and democratic society, but Uzbekistan's respect for human rights has been poor. On that, I agree with some of the hon. Gentleman's comments. We acknowledge and support the small steps forward that the Uzbek Government have taken—for example, inviting the UN special rapporteur on torture to visit Uzbekistan. We now need to see the Uzbek authorities fully implementing his recommendations. It is welcome that the Uzbek criminal code has been amended to define torture and that a draft national action plan on torture is being drawn up. We shall look closely at the detail of that plan, and we hope to have open and constructive dialogue with the Uzbek authorities to ensure that it is implemented. I am also pleased that the Uzbek Government have granted access to prisons to western ambassadors and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, there have been many well-documented cases of human rights abuses in Uzbekistan. We have used every opportunity to press those with the Uzbek Government. Earlier this year, I went into detail about the concerns over human rights in Uzbekistan at the Foreign Affairs Committee when it discussed the Foreign Office's international human rights report. I made it clear that we had

We shall continue to press those issues at every opportunity.

I now move to another issue to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Last week, staff at our embassy in Tashkent publicly expressed concern that a scheduled conference in Tashkent on the death penalty, which we were jointly sponsoring with Freedom House, was not allowed to go ahead because the non-governmental organisation that was organising it was unregistered. We will continue to push for the abolition of the death penalty and the registration of political parties and NGOs.

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We are also monitoring the persecution of religious minorities in Uzbekistan. We understand that there are 7,000 religious and political prisoners—that is 7,000 too many. Of those prisoners, many are simply devout Muslims, whom we believe are often unfairly convicted of being extremists. We will continue to stress to the Uzbek Government the fact that falsely accusing citizens of extremist activity is likely to foster rather than discourage extremism.

It is worth taking this opportunity to put on the record the situation with our ambassador. There has been much comment and speculation in the press, and it has been suggested over the past few months that we do not support our ambassador to Tashkent, and that we have recalled him from that post because of pressure from our allies. Neither assertion is true. The ambassador is in the UK for private medical reasons. It would be inappropriate for me to comment further, other than to confirm that he remains our ambassador and to say that we endorse his comments about the human rights situation in Uzbekistan; I explicitly endorsed them at the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs.

I will now briefly deal with some questions raised by the hon. Gentleman. As regards the EU-Uzbek Co-operation Council, I am not yet aware of the date and place of that meeting. That has not been settled. Certainly, continuing European Union engagement depends on Uzbekistan's progress on human rights.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the death penalty conference. I have made clear our stance on the death penalty, both generally and with regard to Uzbekistan. We will continue to pursue that issue. He also discussed pressing the Uzbek authorities to publish statistics on the death penalty and burials. I will consider putting some of those points to them.

The subject of defence sales was also raised. I made it clear that the UK has not sanctioned arms sales to Uzbekistan. There have been indications to the contrary in some of our national newspapers, but it is important to make that point clear.

Both the Government and the EU continue to lobby for the abolition of the death penalty. With our support, the EU recently criticised six executions that took place in Uzbekistan. The EU, the UK and our embassy will continue to lobby for a moratorium on the death penalty.

To sum up, it is clear that Uzbekistan faces many difficult challenges. There is much work to do, but we should bear it in mind that it is only 12 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. We are engaging constructively with Uzbekistan, and will continue to press our human rights concerns and give what support we can to the Uzbek authorities. There are difficult concerns and challenges, and it is critically important that we remain engaged on them.

11.28 am

Sitting Suspended.

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