Marching against the visit of a human rights abuser

Peter Clarke (back) joins Uzbek human rights defenders at the protest © Amnesty International

Uzbekistani human rights defenders at the protest © Amnesty International

By Peter Clarke, Media and Communications Officer at Amnesty International’s EU Office

Amnesty International and various other NGOs took part in a flash demonstration outside the European Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters in Brussels on Monday morning. We were expressing our opposition to the official visit of Uzbekistan’s President, Islam Karimov, at a time when the May 2005 mass killings by security forces in the Uzbekistani city of Andizhan have yet to be credibly investigated.

Karimov’s sole EU contact appears to have been the Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso.  Other senior figures in Belgium, including King Albert II and Herman Van Rompuy, wisely decided not to receive Karimov. We and other groups were there to protest against the severe human rights abuses carried out in Uzbekistan under Karimov’s rule. The 45-minute demonstration included testimonies from two Uzbekistani human rights defenders and attracted much media attention, with over 25 journalists present.

We’ve frequently criticised the EU’s weakness on the Uzbekistani government’s blatant and widespread abuse of human rights. This includes the EU decision to lift the sanctions it imposed on Uzbekistan following the Andizhan killings. In October 2005, the EU called for an independent, international investigation. However, the EU has now lifted all sanctions, with no investigation taking place. As a result, the Uzbekistani government has said it considers the entire issue closed.

There was a general feeling that this demo achieved its goals. Dictators are great copy for journalists, so the message wasn’t hard to sell. The media relished the evident confusion among the EU institutions about how to handle the visit.  And perhaps most important of all, a diverse range of NGOs all found a common cause. The Commission’s press release on the Barroso/Karimov meeting was at pains to stress how central human rights had been to the conversation. Can we be in any doubt that the nature of the exchange would have been rather different if the Commission not been lobbied so energetically? One of the lessons for us all is the need for us to maintain pressure on EU bodies and continue to insist that all foreign policy initiatives should routinely be scrutinised through the human rights lens.

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