It is hard to imagine former Tunisian dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali meeting in Brussels with the top EU leadership after recent events brought his 23-year rule to a dramatic end. But only because of that word “former,” rather than the word “dictator.” Apparently, meeting with the world’s nastiest tyrants is not considered an issue in Brussels.
Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso’s recent agenda features regular tête-a-têtes with Central Asian dictators. In mid-January, he and Energy Commissioner Oettinger went to the Caspian to persuade the president of isolated Turkmenistan to sell gas to Europe, passing by increasingly authoritarian Baku. In the face of protests from leading international human rights NGOs and Uzbek refugee activists, Barroso also recently received President Islam Karimov, for 21 years the leader of Uzbekistan, whose regime has relatively recently emerged from under EU sanctions following the massacre of some 700 civilians by government forces in Andijan in May 2005.
The EU’s willingness to meet with Central Asian hard-men, whose little-known regimes deprive citizens of their basic rights, is worrisome. Despite the bloc’s commitment to fundamental values and its relative trading power, the thirst for gas have led bureaucrats to the conclusion that the EU has more riding on the relationship with its counterparts than those on the other side of the table.
In terms of strategy and tactics it is the wrong conclusion. The current approach undermines EU leverage by underplaying the extent to which these regimes, surrounded by power-hungry Russia, energy-thirsty China and crisis-ridden Afghanistan are in the market for political supporters and that gas deals and leases for military bases are sold domestically as well as internationally in order to ensure regime-survival. It leads to meetings which are used to legitimize the leadership while the EU more often than not leaves empty-handed with regard its core demands, be they energy or security-related or – as many hope – getting a commitment to tackle human rights abuses. The recent Ashgabat trip is one such example; the EU’s "results-oriented" human rights dialogues, still to bear fruit in terms of political prisoner releases, are another.
Karimov’s visit was a chance for the EU to restate its still unfulfilled demand for an independent investigation into the Andijan massacre and make it a part of the negotiations. A statement released following the meeting went some way to meeting the concerns of NGOs, referencing individual cases and, notably calling on the Uzbek government to allow the International Labour Organisation to monitor its cotton harvest – where forced child labor is widespread. Yet the EU’s central demand for an investigation into the 2005 killings was not on the agenda.
Karimov’s tight control of the broadcast media ensures the Uzbek leader a public relations victory back home. By contrast, the Commission’s communications strategy looks to have resulted in an own goal: The blanket of silence surrounding Monday’s meeting indicates the level of official embarrassment. Unusually for a state visit, no press conference was planned – although a flashmob protest organized by Uzbek activists together with leading NGOs made publicity inevitable.
Barroso’s website featured a glowing presidential CV penned by the Uzbeks and referring to Karimov as the “Hero of Uzbekistan” until pressure from human rights groups led to its removal. Officials from NATO, the Belgian Foreign Ministry and the European Commission lined up to give conflicting accounts as to who invited Karimov [for the record, Uzbek press credits Barroso]. The response of the top three Brussels officials further speaks to disarray: Catherine Ashton was out of town and Herman van Rompuy was not available for a meeting – reputedly on moral grounds.
Uzbekistan’s human rights situation continues to be nightmarish, even by Central Asian standards. Threats, intimidation, illegal punishment, and torture against critics of the authorities are routine. Since 2008, human rights activists have recorded at least nine deaths as a result of torture during investigations or in prisons. Uzbekistan is not yet a signatory of the Optional Protocol to Convention Against Torture and has not fully implemented the 2003 recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on torture. A recent reported rape of two sisters by police officers has not led to any convictions.
Despite international calls, children were yet again sent to harvest cotton in 2010, and a health activist tackling the growing HIV/AIDS problem were imprisoned for "offending the honor and dignity of the Uzbek people." Those who seek to tell stories like these are subject to frequent crackdowns: In 2010 alone, at least nine civil society activists and journalists were charged for alleged criminal offenses and some of them were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment. In all 34 journalists have left the country following Andijan to escape persecution and critical websites are frequently blocked or closed down.
That the EU is receiving dictators from Central Asia while at the same time supporting democratic aspirations of Tunisians speaks volumes about the lack of a coherent human rights strategy.
Yet if Tunisia teaches us anything, it is that seemingly stable dictatorships can prove brittle when challenged, even by the least powerful. Up until Ben Ali’s ouster the EU championed Tunisia as reliable, “an example for the region” and had begun negotiations over “enhanced status” in relations without conditions. Now, even as European firms scramble to disassociate themselves from Ben Ali cronies the EU is counting the political cost of alienating a generation of activists, some likely heading for government. The lesson from Tunisia is clear: If international actors like the EU who identify themselves with fundamental freedoms wish to remain credible on the global stage, they need to speak out for the oppressed rather than having lunch with the oppressors.