(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday wrapped up a tour of Central Asian countries, appearing cautious at times not to offend some of the world’s most autocratic regimes by criticizing their human rights records.
In arguably the most repressive of the five countries on his tour, Uzbekistan, Kerry did not even use the words “human rights” when speaking briefly to reporters alongside its president, settling instead for the vague term, “human dimension.”
“We need to talk about the human dimension, the issues regarding individuals and their participation in society and in defining the future of the country, and their opportunities with respect to education and other issues,” he said in comments with Uzbek President Islam Karimov before their meeting in Samarkand on Sunday.
In remarks to a joint meeting of all five Central Asian foreign ministers in the same city that day, Kerry again made a passing reference to “the human dimension” rather than human rights.
And before meeting with President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov of Turkmenistan in Ashgabat on Tuesday, Kerry again used the “human dimensions” term.
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are among the 10 “worst of the worst” countries in the world in 2015, as evaluated by Freedom House, a Washington-based human rights group that grades countries for political rights and civil liberties. They score below countries like China, Cuba and Iran, and are on a par with the likes of North Korea and Saudi Arabia.
Annual State Department human rights reports detail abuses in the two countries ranging from torture of detainees by security forces to widespread restrictions on religious freedom.
Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are moreover both listed by the U.S. as “countries of particular concern” for severe religious freedom violations, and both are in the bottom eight of Transparency International’s latest corruption perceptions index.
Turkmenistan ranks third last of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ annual press freedom index. Only North Korea and Eritrea get lower scores. Uzbekistan is in 166th place.
According to the formula Freedom House has been using to rate governments for four decades, four of the five Central Asian countries – Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan – are “not free,” while the fifth, Kyrgyzstan, is “partly free.”
Briefing reporters on background in London after the Central Asia part of the trip, two senior State Department officials said Kerry’s meeting with the Turkmen leader had involved “a lot more back and forth” than had some of the other meetings.
They said Kerry raised human rights, including specific cases of more than 80 prisoners of concern, and had been “quite pointed” in doing so.
Berdimuhamedov had described the issues as “technical” ones that needed further conversation, but “said he wasn’t prepared to get into the specifics of the cases in this instance.”
A State Department readout of Kerry’s earlier meeting with Uzbekistan’s Karimov also referred to “respect for human rights and political freedoms” among a list of topics under discussion.
Others included regional security, countering violent extremism, economic cooperation and “the importance of cooperative global efforts to combat climate change.”
After the brief statements to the press by Kerry and Karimov, a Washington Post reporter tried to ask Karimov about his country’s human rights record, but was escorted from the room by U.S. and Uzbek security officials.
‘Terrorism is not a legitimate excuse to lock up political opponents’
One occasion on his tour when Kerry did publicly address the issue of human rights at any length was in a speech Monday at Nazarbayev University in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.
There he emphasized the importance of upholding human rights while countering terrorism and extremism.
“Terrorism is not a legitimate excuse to lock up political opponents, diminish the rights of civil society, or pin a false label on activists who are engaged in peaceful dissent,” he said.
“Practices of this type are not only unjust, but they are in the end counterproductive. They play directly into the hands of terrorists. And when the pathways to nonviolent change are closed, the road to extremism becomes more inviting.”
Kerry made a similar point after a meeting with Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon, saying that they had discussed “the challenges involved in counterterrorism and fighting against violent extremism and doing it effectively but also in a way that balances human rights, religious freedom, the ability of people to be able to participate politically …”
Human rights also came up during a joint press appearance with Kerry’s Kyrgyz counterpart, Foreign Minister Erlan Abdyldaev, when asked about a recent spat over the State Department decision to award its annual Human Rights Defenders award to a Kyrgyz rights activist serving a life sentence for “creating a threat to civil peace and stability in society.”
Kerry said Azimjan Askarov had been honored for a lifetime of work on human rights, but that the award decision had been “misinterpreted as to what it meant.”
He also said the U.S. had “great respect for the democracy that the Kyrgyz Republic is committed to” and had no intention of interfering with its security interests.
U.S. interests in the region of former Soviet states, where Moscow’s sway remains strong, include cooperation against Islamic terrorism, especially emanating from neighboring Afghanistan.
Past U.S. criticism of government policies there have come at a cost: After the Bush administration called for an inquiry into a bloody 2005 crackdown on protestors in Uzbekistan, Karimov expelled the U.S. from a key airbase being used in support of coalition operations in Afghanistan.
Bilateral relations only started improving slowly in late 2007, when the two governments began to re-engage under the terms of a declaration covering reform and human rights as well as security and economic relations. Karimov did not permit the U.S. to return to the Karshi-Khanabad airbase, however.