Uzbekistan removed from US Special Watch List for Religious Freedom Violations

Uzbekistan removed from US Special Watch List for Religious Freedom Violations

The US State Department’s exclusion of Uzbekistan from its Special Watch list for of governments that engage or tolerate “severe violations of religious freedom” is a major achievement for Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan’s recent efforts to improve religious tolerance and simplify the registration procedures of religious organisations and associations are being recognised internationally. The closure of the Jaslyk prison which hosted thousands of religious prisoners certainly played a role in the decision of the US State Department.

“I am pleased to announce that Sudan and Uzbekistan have been removed from the Special Watch List based on significant, concrete progress undertaken by their respective governments over the past year. Their courageous reforms of their laws and practices stand as models for other nations to follow”, said US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.

“Under the leadership of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan is the only one of these CPCs (Countries of Particular Concern) moving toward compliance with its international obligations,” US Senator Roger Wicker said during a Commission on Security and Co-operation in Europe (US Helsinki Commission) hearing held December 11 in Washington to discuss the announcement.

Uzbekistan was first included in the list of violators in 2006. In November 2018, the State Department placed Uzbekistan on a watch list for progress in religious freedom.

In the context of the 2017-2021 reform cycle of Uzbekistan, strengthening civil, inter-ethnic and inter-religious peace, tolerance and harmony is listed as one of the priorities. While in the early years of the reform process, economic reforms may have been prioritised, in the last two years we have also seen efforts in the direction of social reforms.

In particular, on August 19, 2020, the Uzbek Parliament published a draft law on amendments and additions to the country’s law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations.” The text was reviewed by the Venice Commission and by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OIDHR), which noted improvements such as the reduction in the required minimum number of believers to create a religious organization; the lifting of the ban on wearing religious clothing in public spaces; and the requirement that liquidation of a religious organization be pronounced by a court (instead of by administrative bodies).

This draft law is part of the Uzbekistan National Human Rights Strategy as approved by a presidential decree of June 2020. As part of this strategy, Uzbek authorities plan to develop 33 draft laws, ratify eight international treaties, and adopt 53 legal acts aimed at increasing the accountability of state bodies, executing the recommendations of international organizations, and amending outdated laws and regulations. Furthermore, notable progress has been achieved in the removal of thousands of “suspected religious extremists” from a blacklist in order to facilitate their reintegration into Uzbek society.

As member of the UN Human Rights Council for the period 2021-2023 period, Uzbekistan will face increased international scrutiny and therefore has a unique opportunity to demonstrate its stated commitment to human rights reforms in its national legislation.

As President Mirziyoyev’s first term comes to an end and the country heads to the polls in October, the protection of human rights has occupied an increasingly central place in Uzbekistan’s domestic agenda. UNHCR membership will allow more frequent dialogues to take place with members of the international community and specialised UN agencies, as well as serving as catalyst for the speeding of reforms in certain areas including the total eradication of forced labour in cotton fields, and a more enabling climate for civil society, NGOs and the media to flourish.

 

Alberto Turkstra, Project Manager, Diplomatic World Institute