In his Washington Post op ed last week, Kyrgyzstan’s long-time ambassador to the U.S. gave us a fascinating insight into the process of base negotiations. Once the U.S. had its base, he wrote, all concerns about human rights and democracy went out the window. The base became the alpha and omega of the U.S.-Kyrgyz relationship, a development he wisely termed detrimental to both sides. With U.S. expulsion from its prime supply base in Kyrgyzstan now looming on the horizon just as the Obama Administration prepares to implement its ramp-up in neighboring Afghanistan, the U.S. quest for a base to replace Manas (Ganci) Air Force Base is getting feverish. And how does this affect human rights policy?
On Thursday, the State Department issued its Human Rights country reports—the first to come out of Hillary Clinton’s State Department—though the core of the report was obviously prepared and submitted under Condoleezza Rice’s stewardship. The pages dealing with the Central Asian dictatorships offer some interesting reading. I understand that efforts to replace the Kyrgyzstan base are now focused on Uzbekistan, which once allowed the United States the use of two air bases. The regime of Islam Karimov, often reckoned the most brutal and dictatorial in the region, kicked the United States out in November 2005, ostensibly over U.S. criticism of mass slayings of Uzbek civilians in the Ferghana Valley following a popular uprising there. Now the German government, which has a military base in Termez, is said to be brokering a new deal for the Americans. How has this affected the U.S. take on the human rights situation in Uzbekistan?
Plenty. One of the country’s most acute human rights offenses is its use of involuntary child labor to harvest its cotton crop. Uzbekistan has drawn international condemnation for this practice, and a number of groups in Europe, North America, and elsewhere have called for a boycott of Uzbek cotton. Prior State Department human rights reports heavily criticized the Uzbeks over their child labor practices. In the current report, we learn that the Uzbeks are making great headway in battling child labor abuse: “Enforcement was lacking due in part to long-standing societal acceptance of child labor as a method of cotton harvesting.”
Last year a BBC documentary showed exactly what form this “long-standing societal acceptance” took. Uzbek authorities closed down elementary and middle schools and then bussed away the children to labor in 100 degree heat for a couple of weeks in fields filled with highly toxic pesticides and agricultural chemicals (to which children under 16 are particularly vulnerable). Children who refused to participate were threatened with beatings and were told they would not be able to continue their education. Last year I interviewed a young Uzbek college student who described to me in some detail her own experience in forced cotton field labor and that of her younger siblings, including in the course of the last harvest. “Societal acceptance” has nothing to do with it. Parents who complain about the practices are subject to threats and coercion, and come under police surveillance. The State Department has accepted and recycled the flimsy rationale that the Uzbek government offers up to cover its tracks.
Is this just sloppy research? I doubt it. I’d say that General Petraeus is probably coming pretty close to a new base deal.