The European Union’s Special Representative for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore, is visiting Uzbekistan for the first time. His programme includes meetings with members of the country’s government and the heads of law-enforcement agencies.
In an interview with Gazeta.uz, Eamon Gilmore discussed the objectives of his visit and shared his perspective on the current state of human rights in Uzbekistan.
— Could you please tell us about the agenda of your visit and what topics you are discussing with the Uzbek government?
— As the EU Special Representative for Human Rights, I regularly visit different countries, and my visit to Uzbekistan is part of that program. But this is not the first time I am visiting Central Asian countries, I have previously been to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and later this week I will also visit Turkmenistan.
During my visit to Uzbekistan, I will hold meetings with representatives of civil society organizations, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Interior, the Procurator General, the Ombudsman and the heads of the Senate and the Legislative Chamber.
We will discuss the human rights situation in Uzbekistan and in the region and some international issues, including the very serious situation in Afghanistan, which is of considerable concern to the European Union. It also involves a discussion about the trade arrangements that the European Union has with Uzbekistan. And of course, it is building on the strengthening relationship between the European Union and Uzbekistan.
This visit I am doing jointly with the EU Special Representative for Central Asia, Terhi Hakala, to support the important work she is doing in the region.
I think this visit is also important because Uzbekistan is a member of the UN Human Rights Council. And my visit comes after and in the context of the visit of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk to Uzbekistan a few weeks ago.
— How would you assess the current situation on human rights in Uzbekistan?
— In general, my opinion corresponds to the assessment given by High Commissioner Volker Türk. He noted that independent Uzbekistan had inherited structures, in which human rights do not feature very prominently, and that old habits die hard.
I am encouraged by the progress made in the last six years: the President’s very strong commitment to human rights and the promotion of human rights, and the reforms he is undertaking, particular reforms I think are important: ending forced labour and child labour, reforms on gender equality, updating legislation on gender-based violence. I think this is a very important piece of legislation.
I would also like to note the willingness of the government of Uzbekistan to cooperate with the UN and invite the UN Special Rapporteur on various human rights issues.
But of course, as in every country, there is still a lot to be done. I would draw attention to the importance of civil society. A healthy civil society is important for every country, for its democracy, for the system to work better, for the broader society to be involved in what the country is doing. And therefore encouraging greater engagement with civil society and the easing of some of the procedures that exist for the registration of civil society organizations to ensure that they actually register can function effectively.
Another area I would like to draw attention to is media freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. The nature of the media is changing all over the world, and I think governments need to respond to this change. By this, I also mean freedom of expression.
During my visit, I found in the Uzbek government a willingness to engage with the European Union and to work in partnership with us. EU member states have come a long way in extending human rights and fundamental freedoms. This is an experience that we can usefully share with Uzbekistan and work together constructively to ensure the full protection and promotion of human rights in the Uzbekistan.
— You mentioned the updated legislation in Uzbekistan on the protection of women and children from violence. In your opinion, how progressive is this law, and what are the next steps for Uzbekistan to continue working to protect the rights of women and children?
— I think it is a very significant step forward and a positive development that this document has been proposed and adopted. Of course, as with any legislation, the main thing is its implementation, we need to see that in the process.
In addition, I believe it is not just about the legislation. Of course, it is very important to criminalize gender-based, domestic and sexual violence. But it is also important to develop a culture of intolerance to violence in society. These are things that should not be happening in the first place.
We have to look at legislation in conjunction with the way society develops. Nowhere should it be the norm that women are abused in or outside their homes and that people are not protected from sexual violence, particularly children. The key to addressing violence in society will be how consistently laws are enforced to influence people’s behaviour. Stable law enforcement should lead to less and less need to resort to it.
— You are of course familiar with the tragic events in Nukus in July 2022. A parliamentary commission was set up in Uzbekistan to investigate them, and in addition to deputies, it included representatives of civil society. Are you familiar with the work of the commission and, if so, what is your assessment of its work?
— It is true that I will have to learn about the progress of this investigation within the next two days. It is my understanding that this work has not yet been completed. I have called for the completion of the investigation because it is necessary to have a full understanding of what has happened. I think we also need to have accountability for the events that took place, in particular for the deaths and injuries.
So I look forward to the commission completing its work and publishing the commission’s report so that we can all read it. First of all, I think it is necessary for the people in Uzbekistan and secondly for the international community. There also needs to be a dialogue with the people concerned so that their grievances can be addressed.
But, again, I was encouraged by the rapid response of the President of Uzbekistan to these events and the swift establishment of the commission, and I look forward to the completion of this work and the reports it will produce.
— Uzbekistan will hold a referendum on constitutional reform in late April. During your visit, were you able to discuss the role of human rights in the new constitution?
— I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to give an opinion on the content of the new constitution, as it is up to the people of the country to decide on it. I know that there has been a consultation process and I welcome it. The only surprise was that Uzbekistan didn’t request consultations with the Venice Commission for Democracy through Law (the Commission’s main task is to provide constitutional and legal assistance to the states — ed.). But now we are waiting for the people of Uzbekistan to decide in a referendum.
There are always issues that arise when a new constitution is adopted in any country, and that includes how the general concepts of statements and goals that are outlined in the constitution are then translated into legislative form, given real meaning. I have been discussing with ministers how they will translate the content of the new constitution into legislation.
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I hope, as does everyone else, that the new constitution will usher in a new Uzbekistan that will mean a better life for all people in the country.