Experts at the U.S. State Department said Uzbekistan had “failed to make significant and sustained efforts” to address “endemic” forced labor in its cotton industry, but senior officials disregarded their testimony and instead claimed progress was being made, the Reuters news agency revealed Wednesday.
Uzbekistan is a close U.S. ally, with NATO using the country to ship supplies to its forces in neighboring Afghanistan. The most populous nation in Central Asia, the country has been ruled by dictator Islam Karimov since 1990.
In a memo obtained by Reuters, State Department experts recommended that a report on modern slavery keep Uzbekistan in the lowest tier in terms of respecting human rights. When the report came out, however, Uzbekistan was moved up in the State Department’s rankings, with the report claiming it was “making significant efforts” to address forced labor in its US$1 billion a year cotton trade.
While Uzbekistan has taken steps to limit the use of child labor, “I don’t see any evidence that this very fundamental form of coercive labor has changed,” former U.S. Ambassador Mark Lagon told Reuters. The country has a “miserable human rights profile.”
Another former U.S. ambassador, John Herbst, said there was a “natural geopolitical alliance” between the U.S. and Uzbekistan, but that President Karimov’s “authoritarian regime is not very consistent with our principles.”
While the U.S. does speak out on human rights abuses, its relations with and willingness to defend human rights abusers is indeed inconsistent with its rhetoric.
Earlier this week, Reuters noted that, in addition to Uzbekistan, U.S. State Department officials also overruled their own experts on another ally, the Gulf nation of Oman. Those experts had recommended the country be downgraded in the annual report on human trafficking; instead, it kept its place.
Oman has served as an intermediary between the U.S. and Iran, helping negotiate the release of three U.S. hikers held by the Islamic Republic in 2011 and facilitating talks over Syria.