Ban Ki-moon challenges Central Asian leaders on human rights

For three years, human rights advocates have routinely excoriated U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for failing to hold despots to account in public for oppressing their people. That changed this week after Ban used a high-level visit to Central Asia to scold the region’s autocratic rulers. Rachel Denber, a regional expert at Human Rights Watch, said ...

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STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

For three years, human rights advocates have routinely excoriated U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for failing to hold despots to account in public for oppressing their people. That changed this week after Ban used a high-level visit to Central Asia to scold the region's autocratic rulers.

Rachel Denber, a regional expert at Human Rights Watch, said she was pleasantly surprised to see Ban deliver consistently tough messages to the leaders of Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. "The secretary general gave a high profile place to human rights issues and that was something very much welcome and long overdue," told Turtle Bay. "So far, he's three for three. In every country he visited he has made a strong statement on human rights."

Before the trip, Human Rights Watch urged Ban in a letter to put human rights at the forefront of issues he raised with the region's leaders. The letter singled out Uzbekistan out for "an atrocious" record of abuses, citing the suppression of media and religious freedoms.

For three years, human rights advocates have routinely excoriated U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for failing to hold despots to account in public for oppressing their people. That changed this week after Ban used a high-level visit to Central Asia to scold the region’s autocratic rulers.

Rachel Denber, a regional expert at Human Rights Watch, said she was pleasantly surprised to see Ban deliver consistently tough messages to the leaders of Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. "The secretary general gave a high profile place to human rights issues and that was something very much welcome and long overdue," told Turtle Bay. "So far, he’s three for three. In every country he visited he has made a strong statement on human rights."

Before the trip, Human Rights Watch urged Ban in a letter to put human rights at the forefront of issues he raised with the region’s leaders. The letter singled out Uzbekistan out for "an atrocious" record of abuses, citing the suppression of media and religious freedoms.

Ban today prodded Uzbekistan leader’s, Islam Karimov, to allow U.N. human rights researchers into the country, and to fulfill his legal obligations to respect his citizens’ human rights. In a speech before university students in Tashkent, Ban credited Uzbekistan with abolishing the death penalty and signing a series of international rights treaties dealing with torture and civil and political rights.

But he also voiced concern that Uzbekistan had not implemented its promises. "It’s time to deliver, time to put them fully into practice," he said. Human rights and the rule of law, he added, "are the door to full standing in the broader international community."

Ban’s visit is part of a five-country trip, his first as U.N. chief, to Central Asia, where local leaders have used the U.S.-led war on terrorism as a justification for cracking down on political opponents. Ban traveled on to Tajikistan Monday, and he will wrap up his trip in Kazakhstan Tuesday.

Ban intended to use the visit to the region, which is plagued by poverty, environmental degradation, and political repression, to draw attention to the need to meet the objectives of the Millennium Development Goals, a series of internationally agreed benchmarks designed to dramatically reduce poverty.

The trip comes less than two weeks after a U.N. human rights committee in New York blasted Uzbekistan for repressive policies and called for a full probe into the 2005 massacre of protesters in Andijan.

Ban made no mention of Andijan, but he called on Uzbekistan to abide by the recent recommendations (pdf) of the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, which called for the release of political prisoners and ending harassment of human rights advocates and journalists. Uzbekistan has challenged the veracity of the rights bodies’ claims, and refused to comply with its recommendations.

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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