Last week, US under secretary of state for civilian security, democracy, and human rights Uzra Zeya visited Uzbekistan for the first time. In an interview with, she says Washington is determined to support reforms in Uzbekistan, and argues thriving societies requires free and independent media.

Video (in English)

Transcript (edited and condensed for clarity)

— This is your first visit to Uzbekistan. You held some senior-level meetings. What did you discuss at these meetings?

— I'm delighted to be here in Uzbekistan for my first visit and to continue senior-level U.S. engagement to deepen our partnership, which is anchored in over three decades of strong U.S. support for Uzbekistan’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.

My visit is also building on sustained, high-level engagement between our countries, as seen in Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit here last year, and also the very historic summit between President Biden and leaders of the C5+1 nations, including your president.

That historic summit issued a joint statement that affirmed the centrality of the human dimension to our partnership with this region and the centrality of human rights, human dignity, democratic reforms, ultimately to the peace and prosperity that Uzbekistan and this region as a whole seeks. So my visit is very much in that context.

I had excellent meetings, productive and candid discussions with His Excellency the Foreign Minister, whom I thank for organizing this very action-packed program. But I also had fruitful discussions with the Minister of Interior, with the Prosecutor General, with dynamic members of Uzbekistan’s civil society and academic leaders, as well as meeting the presidential aide, madam Mirziyoyeva.

— Based on these fresh talks, what are the top challenges you see now regarding democracy and human rights in Uzbekistan?

— Well, as I mentioned, I affirmed strong U.S. support for President Mirziyoyev’s ambitious reform agenda. But one of the great challenges with reform agendas is translating aspirations into actions and really creating the enabling environment for reforms to take hold.

For instance, you know, we commend the historic legislation adopted about one year ago criminalizing domestic violence, which is a step forward for Uzbekistan’s women and girls, but really all of its citizens. But a reform like this needs a sustained effort to ensure that all the relevant officials in law enforcement, in the justice sector and that civil society, actors and communities can all take part in its successful and effective implementation.

Some additional areas of concern that we discussed are, working to increase freedom of expression and media freedom in Uzbekistan, as well as religious freedom.

But then there were also very important areas of progress, such as the fight against trafficking in persons and Uzbekistan’s continued efforts and tremendous efforts to eliminate forced labor and child labor in the cotton industry.

All of these are areas where continued U.S.-Uzbekistan engagement is quite important, but also the contributions of civil society are essential.

— Critics say the reform process in Uzbekistan has been backsliding and people now are not as optimistic as they were a few years ago. What do you think about that? How would you describe the reform process in Uzbekistan?

— Well, I would say for our part, the United States as a friend and partner, we are committed to helping support the full and effective implementation of the president’s reform agenda. We recognize that it has to be a holistic effort…

If I had to summarise, I would say it’s a team effort. It’s an effort that implicates the whole of government across ministries, not one actor alone, but also needs the involvement of civil society, of domestic experts, but I think can also benefit from the support of international partners and international expertise.

I don’t think it’s fair to say that reform processes happen overnight or simply with the adoption of legislation. It’s the implementation, it’s the execution that is the true test that requires a multifaceted effort.

— In your opinion, how long does it take for the successful reforms to be implemented?

— I think it’s not really my role as an outsider or a senior American official to offer a prescription or judge. But I would say this to succeed it really has to be an ongoing and continuous effort.

For us in the United States, our Constitution in the preamble exhorts us to work towards a more perfect union. And this is really a reflection of our continual, ongoing effort in the United States to continually improve our democracy, to ensure it delivers for all its citizens.

So, in my view, the reform efforts, ultimately it’s a continuous effort to fine tune, to improve and to really meet the aspirations and fulfil the potential of an individual country. I wouldn’t put a time, an endpoint on it.

— This year, Uzbekistan regressed further in the Reporters Without Borders “World Press Freedom Index” for 2024, losing 11 positions at once. If you read the RSF report, the outlook is rather bleak. How concerned is the US about this?

— As part of our global human rights policy, the United States supports and advocates for media freedom as an essential building block of thriving, well-informed, peaceful and secure societies. And certainly Uzbekistan is no exception.

You know, I refer you to our 2023 country report on human rights for Uzbekistan, which lays out a number of concerns that you’ve alluded to, including reports of the arrests of bloggers for peaceful expression or reports of the firing of journalists who engaged in work critical of government policies.

Our concerns with respect to freedom of expression, our support for media freedom was absolutely one of the key topics that I discussed throughout my very productive engagements here. And it will continue to be an area of engagement for the United States, not just here in Uzbekistan, but globally as we support universal human rights and democratic progress.

I want to also underscore that the United States is offering, I think, important support in the form of our foreign assistance and the important partnerships that USAID and the State Department support in Uzbekistan. So, you know, a new $10 million civil society and media freedom support program will be coming online soon. And this will help in a number of areas, including, helping build the capacity and the professionalization of independent media here in Uzbekistan, as well as helping support the development of sustainable business models.

As journalism itself as an industry has faced really profound transformation over the last decades. So these are some of the concrete ways that we are working to support media freedom beyond our words.

— Media freedom situation is worsening across the whole Central Asian region. How much of an issue is this right now in the Central Asian-US relations?

— I think it’s a very important issue as we work to partner with governments throughout the region to advance a shared vision of a more peaceful and prosperous Central Asia. But also coming back to the human dimension element. You know, this was an element affirmed in the C5+1 leader statement that came out of the historic summit last September in New York.

I think it’s important that we recognize that free and independent media plays a vital role in holding governments to account, in informing the population and ultimately, supporting societal progress.

So it’s one vital piece of our engagement in Central Asia… Our global approach to strengthening democracy internationally is supporting free and independent media. So Central Asia is part of that, but it’s certainly not the sole focus. This is truly a global U.S. foreign policy priority.

— In 2020, the US removed Uzbekistan from its Special Watch List for religious freedom, in recognition of the progress in this area. This May, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom published its annual report and again recommended returning Uzbekistan on the Special Watch List for “severe violations of religious freedom”.

— Well, religious freedom was another topic that we discussed in several of my government engagements over the last two days. I think we had candid and open discussions on the role of religion in free and open societies. We certainly encourage Uzbekistan to increase religious freedom, to allow all of its citizens to practise their religion or, frankly, to reject religion, free of government interference.

You’re absolutely correct that, taking a step back, there has been a positive and important opening in religious freedom in Uzbekistan compared to the not so recent past. Over the last decade, we’ve certainly seen a positive trajectory that was reflected in the State Department’s decision a few years ago to lift the special watch list designation.

There are additional steps that we would welcome the government taking in the current context., and these are topics of ongoing discussion between our two governments.

— Your job is to lead US diplomatic efforts to promote democracy and human rights. How big or small is the gap between the U.S. and governments of Central Asia in understanding universal principles of democracy, human rights, media freedom? How is your work done?

— I'm an optimist by nature, which is maybe an important quality to have as a diplomat, and especially with this responsibility. But I will say, I come to this job also with a sense of humility and confidence.

Humility in that, as I mentioned earlier, in the United States, we are continually striving to improve our own democracy, to ensure that we are delivering human rights, opportunity equity to all of our citizens. And this is still a work in progress.

I also readily acknowledge that the nations of Central Asia have only been independent for a little more than 32 years, and these are nations that have faced decades of repression under the Soviet Union, domination, exploitation.

Our approach as the United States since their independence, and we were among the first to recognize the independent former states of the Soviet Union, is unwavering support for their sovereignty, for their independence, for their territorial integrity.

And through partnerships like the C5+1 summit framework, unwavering support for their peace, for their prosperity and their advancement. So certainly we are a committed partner in helping support Uzbek-led reform efforts that deliver this for all your people.