Uzbekistan’s foreign minister, Abdulaziz Kamilov, was one of the first foreign officials to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington this week. The meeting underscored Uzbekistan’s important role in the Northern Distribution Network, through which the United States moves supplies to the troops in Afghanistan.
But there is another, more sinister side to Uzbekistan. While many governments fail to effectively curb human trafficking and slave labor, Uzbekistan stands out. It is the only country where the government is the trafficker.
Each year, the Uzbek government forces hundreds of thousands of its own citizens to pick cotton. Schools are closed and students are threatened with expulsion. Business hours are reduced and workers are threatened with losing their jobs. Essential services are downgraded as teachers, doctors, and nurses are forced to pick cotton. Uzbek citizens who fail to meet their government-ordained quotas must pay large sums to hire alternate pickers.
Cotton is king in Uzbekistan.
It is the prime source of revenue for the central government, which is led by a former communist party boss, President Islom Karimov. He and his cronies have taken the old Soviet central economic planning system and perfected it.
The central government tells farmers how much cotton to plant, buys it on the cheap at below market prices and sells it abroad at a huge profit. And state-sponsored forced labor is the lubricant that keeps the creaky gears of this economically irrational system from collapsing.
Since 2007, a coalition of apparel companies, labor and human rights groups, and socially conscious investors has pressed the Uzbek government to stop the practice of forced labor. The United States and other Western governments have pressured Tashkent too.
But the Uzbek government continues to deny there is a problem. Despite committing to meet international standards, Tashkent steadfastly refuses to allow the International Labor Organization to monitor the situation on the ground.
But this year there is a sign that pressure is reaching the Uzbek authorities, even if it has only resulted in cosmetic changes. Unlike in past years, the Uzbek government did not close all of the country’s elementary schools and force young children to join the harvest. The move, however, appears to be a public relations stunt. The government made up the loss in free labor by forcing more children ages 15 to 18, and more adults to pick cotton. It simply swapped age groups without reducing the scope of the problem.
Nevertheless, there is one more tool at the Obama Administration’s disposal. Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, the Department of State will no longer be able to list—in its annual report on the worst offenders of sex and labor trafficking—Uzbekistan as just one more country that is planning to address trafficking in persons. By June, State must either upgrade Uzbekistan to a country that is taking sustained and significant action or downgrade it to the lowest category, which brings with it the threat of sanctions.
Senior U.S. officials need to make clear to the Uzbek government that to avoid sanctions it must agree to allow the ILO to monitor the harvest this fall. The ILO is the most competent international body to determine the true scope of the problem and to begin working with Tashkent on a serious plan to address it.
Critics of this policy likely will argue that the U.S. should not risk angering the Uzbek government because we need its railroads and airspace to supply our troops in Afghanistan and facilitate their withdrawal. But as President Obama said in his inaugural address, the U.S. must support democracy and human rights abroad “because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.”
When political change inevitably comes to Uzbekistan, the Uzbek people will remember if the United States did everything it could to help end their servitude. The answer may well shape their attitudes towards the United States and whether our walk matches our talk, long after Karimov has exited from the scene and Afghanistan drops from the top ranks of U.S. foreign policy challenges. Involuntary servitude in cotton-picking ought to be one thing the U.S. calls plainly for abolishing.