Opening remarks by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein at a press conference during his mission to Uzbekistan

May 11, 2017

This has been the first ever visit to Uzbekistan by any of the six UN High Commissioners for Human Rights, since the Office of the High Commissioner was established in 1993, just two years after Uzbekistan became independent, and one year after it became a member of the United Nations.

It has been a very brief visit indeed — effectively one full, highly intense, day of meetings yesterday, and a few hours in Samarkand today. That was shorter than either my Office or the Government of Uzbekistan intended, as we both viewed this visit as very important, very significant. But in the end, because of conflicting schedules, one full day of meetings was all we could manage without postponing the visit until the autumn — which neither of us wished to do.

I am very glad we did not postpone it. We packed a great deal of discussion into a single day yesterday, culminating in a 90-minute meeting between myself and President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, in which we found much common ground and reached agreements on a number of concrete steps.

My predecessors visited the four other Central Asian Republics on a number of occasions, but none of us was able to visit this country. When we set up our Regional Office in Bishkek in 2008, Uzbekistan made it clear that the office covered four countries, not five. After my meeting with the President yesterday, we have a clear agreement that our Regional Office will from now on work closely with all five Central Asian Republics, and our Regional Representative, Ryszard Komenda, is here with us today. That is one important result of this visit, which should enable the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the wider UN human rights system, to deepen cooperation during what appears to be a key moment in Uzbekistan’s history, with the Government embarking on an ambitious and — on first sight at least — very dynamic programme of reform.

I should note at this point that this visit and its outcomes have not come out of the blue. There has been gradual progress on human rights in Uzbekistan over the past four years, with much credit due to the Resident Coordinator and the UN Country Team here who, in the absence of any permanent presence of my Office, have made the advancement of human rights a priority, and have cooperated with many Government departments on human-rights related issues leading to a National Action Plan being adopted in November 2014, and a continuous human rights dialogue and succession of activities between the UN and the Government since then. I believe the approach of the Resident Coordinator and Country Team has been a commendable — almost model —  example of the Secretary-General’s policy of ‘Human Rights Up Front’ being enacted across the whole UN system, as was intended. And it is heartening to see that their efforts are also clearly appreciated by the Government, with the acceptance by all concerned that peace, security and development will not be durable without a strong grounding in human rights.

On the back of such a short visit I am not going to attempt a full overview of all human right issues in Uzbekistan. I note however that there was a consistent recognition in all my meetings with senior government officials and members of the judiciary that the country has — to put it in the words of one Minister — “issues and challenges.”

There was also a statement of intent, repeated on a number of occasions, that the response to those issues and challenges needs to be rooted in international human rights laws and standards, and that there is some way to go in this regard. The Speaker of the Parliament Legislative Chamber, for example, stressed this point and said that every new law is now going through a process to see if it is compliant with international human rights standards.

This clear-eyed acceptance that there are problems, and there are also well-honed solutions to those problems available within the framework of international law and the institutions designed to uphold them, is key. This means we can really get down to business.

Over the past eight months or so, the Government of Uzbekistan has initiated a dizzying array of new laws, policies and plans with human rights ramifications. According to the Minister of Justice, whom I met alongside the Minister of Interior and Prosecutor-General yesterday afternoon, the Government has a target of adopting 125 regulatory documents in 2017 alone — and a number of other key laws and regulations were already being drawn up, discussed and adopted during the last few months of 2016. Again, I will not attempt to analyse, or even summarise, these during this short statement. In general, the aims appear to be substantive, constructive and important.

Human rights — all categories of human rights — figure very prominently across the five sets of priorities laid out in the over-arching policy document guiding these proposed reforms — the President’s 2017-21 Action Strategy. Anyone wishing to understand what underlies the changes starting to take place in Uzbekistan — and what lies behind my visit — should look closely at the Action Strategy. 

The five priorities of the Action Strategy are:

1) Improving the public administration system, including political, parliamentary and public administration reform, and plans to enhance public accountability. This in turn includes effective mechanisms for dialogue with the people — already under way; better public oversight — already producing some results, in terms of criminal cases brought against corrupt officials; and much-needed strengthening of civil society and the media. The journalists attending this press briefing are in a better place than me to judge whether or not you are beginning to see some tangible improvements in terms of freedom of expression and freedom for the media to operate, criticise, contribute to holding the authorities accountable for their actions — and I would be interested in hearing your views during the question and answer session.

2) Ensuring rule of law, and reform of the justice system, including the vital element of making the judiciary impartial and independent of the executive, which it has not been in the past — a situation that has contributed to much of the injustice faced by individuals in Uzbekistan. This priority area also contains a number of provisions related to the protection of individual rights and freedoms, and access to justice, as well as measures to tackle corruption. It also proposes measures to enhance oversight of the law enforcement and regulatory authorities, and to identify and deal with systemic violations committed by them, as well as measures to improve performance, with a strong emphasis on training and re-training of public officials. This is an area where my Office can of course offer some concrete assistance, for example in providing training of judges, which is a service we have often provided in other parts of the world, and the Minister of Justice and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court both requested our assistance with the retraining of judges on international legal standards.

3) Development and liberalization of the economy.  The proposed major economic reforms include measures to support small businesses and strengthen the protection of rights of private property, as well as measures to mitigate climate change, assist the many Uzbeks working in the agricultural sector and reduce disparities in the socio-economic development of the regions.

4) Development of the social sector, with a focus on employment and reduction of low-income families, strengthening of social protection of vulnerable populations, including the elderly and persons with disabilities; reform of the health care sector, with stress laid on both accessibility and quality of health and social services; targeted programmes to build affordable housing and enhance infrastructure; development and significant improvement of the education sector, both in terms of teaching and in terms of infrastructure; and a strong focus on Uzbekistan’s youth, including not just education but also social protections. I have been given the good news that the Parliament is expected to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities shortly.

5) Security, religious tolerance and inter-ethnic harmony, and constructive foreign policy. Balancing these issues, while ensuring the rights of the individual, is of course crucial — both to security and to human rights. As in other countries, I have emphasised that the answer to the risk of radicalization is not simply heavy-handed security measures and repressive policies which breed resentment and frustration, thereby making it easier for extremists to recruit new supporters. I also welcome the focus in this section of the Action Strategy on improving relations with Uzbekistan’s neighbours, including resolving the sensitive border issues inherited from the Soviet Union, and playing a constructive role in wider international affairs.

The Action Strategy provides an impressive framework for the numerous reforms demanded by the President and planned by the Government. I encourage the Government to monitor actual human rights results as part of the High Level Government monitoring of the implementation of the Action Strategy. Needless to say, frameworks and plans are one thing, and results are another — especially when it comes to human rights, when States often make fine promises but fail to back them up with real change. Nevertheless, I believe the intent is evidently genuine — and while there is some scepticism outside Uzbekistan that this may amount to window-dressing, I have not encountered such scepticism during my visit here.

I was particularly struck by yesterday’s meeting with members of civil society. Firstly, the attendance was high — some 60 people in all (twice as many people as we were expecting) from different segments of civil society, including some of those most critical of the authorities. Secondly, several participants expressed very forthright opinions, yet there seemed to be little or no anxiety about the presence of numerous TV cameras, including state television.

Although the meeting was short — much too short to hear everyone’s views — the enthusiasm was palpable. As one participant said: “This is the first time in 12 years that we have had a meeting like this.” I hope that we are indeed seeing a new dawn for civil society in Uzbekistan, and that from now on such open, forthright, well-attended meetings become the norm. If the President and his Government are to achieve their declared aims they will need a strong, vibrant and dynamic civil society — and media — helping them, but also pushing them, criticizing them and exposing failings, gaps and injustices, without fear of repression or reprisal.

In this respect, I have raised with the authorities the need to continue — as quickly as possible — with the release of more political prisoners, some of whom have been serving very long sentences after the type of highly problematic trial processes that the authorities state they wish to put an end to.

I have also suggested the Government adopts measures to quickly resolve the continuing lack of transparency about what goes in Uzbekistan’s prisons and other places of detention, with the aim of ensuring that torture and other forms of ill-treatment are halted once and for all, in line with Uzbekistan’s commitments under the Convention Against Torture. I believe ratifying the Optional Protocol to that Convention — which creates a monitoring system and entities that can enter any prison, at any time, unannounced, would greatly enhance and accelerate the effort to end torture, which is one of the issues that has been most damaging to Uzbekistan’s international reputation over the years. I am glad that the Government is considering this.

To help it advance its efforts to live up to its treaty obligations, I am recommending — and the Government itself is proposing — closer cooperation with the other parts of the UN human rights system, including the Treaty Bodies and Special Procedures. After a gap of some 15 years, during which not a single Special Procedure has been invited to visit the country, I am delighted to hear the Government’s confirmation that cooperation will be resumed, starting with an invitation to the Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Religion or Belief. Like civil society, they play a vital role in providing expert advice on positive reform and in pointing out gaps and failings.

In recent years the Government has proved that it can make major systematic efforts to eradicate an entrenched human rights violation — for example in the concerted and highly successful effort it made to end the age-old practice of large scale forced child labour during the annual cotton harvests. The Action Strategy implies similar efforts to eradicate other entrenched violations — including torture, harassment by security forces, and indeed the continued forced unpaid labour of adults during the cotton harvests.

And accountability — also covered in the Action Strategy — will be key to all of this. On Saturday, we will mark the 12th anniversary of the terrible events that took place in Andijan on 13 May 2005. While it is important to look forward, it also important to come to terms with past events and ensure that victims are not forgotten and their grievances are addressed.

I had another glimpse of change already under way this morning in the historic city of Samarkand, where I visited the ‘People’s Reception Office of the President’ for the Samarkand region. This was set up as part of the President’s initiative to listen to people all across the country and act on their complaints. And the complaints have been forthcoming — some 800,000 in all since the initiative began late last year. These have apparently fed into the numerous reform proposals, and are also being addressed on a practical level locally, as I saw in Samarkand, where referral desks are operating — and in some cases providing immediate assistance — on issues such as housing, employment, health, social care, banking and legal assistance. Mobile Reception Offices have also been set up to reach out to the more remote villages and rural areas.

While in Samarkand, I also met representatives of six different religious confessions and nine cultural centres, including several ethnic, national and linguistic minorities. With 138 such cultural centres across the country, their role in promoting inter-religious and inter-ethnic tolerance and harmony — and in ensuring the viability of many of the government’s proposed reforms — will be vital, and I strongly support the apparent intention to include them as much as possible and as transparently as possible in the reform process, while ensuring the focus on communities does not impact negatively on the rights of individuals.

I would like to conclude by thanking the President and all the other senior officials I met during this short visit, and especially the Minister of Foreign Affairs, as well as the Director of the National Human Rights Centre, who was present at almost all the meetings, and the Parliamentary Ombudsman who will play an increasingly crucial role on oversight, as the reforms unfold. My visit has been extremely efficiently organized, and the hospitality extended to me and my delegation was exceptional and greatly appreciated.

If I am to make one short critical comment before concluding on an optimistic note, it is that there seem to be very few women in leadership roles, with the Deputy Prime Minister and Chairperson of the Women’s Committee, Tanzila Narbaeva, whom I also met yesterday, being one of the notable exceptions. In several meetings I had yesterday, there was not a single woman present on the Government side. I understand two important new laws relating to equality of men and women and domestic violence are in an advanced stage of development, and the Government has committed to consider them as soon as they are submitted, but I believe having more women in positions of authority is equally as important. Their full participation at every level will be vital to the country’s ambitious reform agenda.

Uzbekistan is, in my view, at a cross-roads. The volume of constructive human-rights related proposals, plans and new legislation that has emerged since President Mirziyoyev took up office is remarkable. The successful implementation of those reforms could have a transformational impact on the country’s future. I am extremely happy that I myself, my Office and my staff are now set to play an active role in trying to secure a future where every citizen and resident of Uzbekistan has their human rights observed, and state-sponsored violations become a distant memory. It is going to be a long and difficult road to get near that point, with obstructions and setbacks, but I do believe the journey has begun.

Thank you.