U.S. Must Prove Its Commitment to Human Rights in Central Asia

In recent weeks, U.S. State Department officials visiting Central Asia spoke about the importance of Central Asian countries as partners on a wide variety of issues, including Afghanistan, regional stability, and counterterrorism. But their messaging on the subject of human rights was mixed, at best.

Democracy and human rights are values the United States claims to stand for and protect, but the U.S too often shuts them out when it comes to strategic interests in the region.

Since as early as 2007, strategic concerns in Afghanistan have dictated U.S. foreign policy in the region. The 2010 controversy surrounding the Manas base in Kyrgyzstan, which was used to transit soldiers in and out of Afghanistan, called into question U.S. priorities and highlighted a willingness to overlook corruption and human rights violations in exchange for maintaining access to the base.

In an April 2013 speech in Astana, former assistant secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake Jr. asserted that the United States uses “diplomatic engagements to urge…Central Asian states to address human rights and democracy concerns and to ensure space for peaceful exercise of fundamental rights.”

But a year later, Blake’s replacement as Assistant Secretary, Nisha Biswal, failed to mention these concerns in her first public remarks in the region. While she spoke at length about the strength of American support for Kazakhstan and described the country as a “leader in the region,” she omitted the Kazakh government’s on-going crackdown on civil society and press freedom. By neglecting to mention the importance of human rights and democracy, American officials send an implicit message that geostrategic priorities like Afghanistan and Russia outweigh support for the people of Central Asia.  

Earlier this month, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns made a step in the right direction when he spoke in Tashkent. Rather than simply highlight the grave human rights abuses in Uzbekistan, he deemed a commitment to human rights and democracy vital for “achieving the full potential” of U.S.-Uzbek bilateral relations, adding that in the eyes of the U.S., “a more open and democratic society is a stronger society.”

This inconsistent messaging could have potentially critical repercussions. The withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan has left Central Asian citizens questioning what role the United States will play in the region going forward.

As the U.S. has scaled down its presence in Central Asia, other countries are vying to fill the power vacuum. The Ukrainian crisis has made devastatingly clear that Russia is bent on safeguarding its influence on the region and will go to great lengths to achieve this end. As Russia exerts more regional pressure, Central Asian governments are likely to heighten their crackdowns on civil society and fundamental human rights.

In order to help Central Asian countries resist this pressure, it is important that the U.S. government continue to work with them on areas of common interest. But a commitment to human rights and democracy must be an integral part of those partnerships.

U.S. officials must be clearer and more consistent in their messaging to demonstrate to the citizens of Central Asia that the United States is willing to stand up for the values and rights the U.S. claims to enshrine. In doing so, the U.S. encourages Central Asian governments to work towards more open and democratic societies, where the rights of their citizens are protected and those in power are held accountable for their actions.

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