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Uzbekistan is building a culture of Human Rights, but concerns about political prisoners, torture, forced labour and corruption remain experts of the Human Rights Committee say

Human Rights Council

3 March 2020

The Human Rights Committee today concluded its consideration of the fifth periodic report of Uzbekistan on the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  The Experts noted the progress in building a culture of human rights and raised questions about political prisoners, impunity for torture, forced labour in the cotton industry and the efforts to curtail corruption, among other issues.

Since the election of the new President, Uzbekistan had made progress in developing a culture of human rights – it had released political prisoners, prohibited the use of evidence extracted under torture, progressed towards gender equality and adopted exemplary laws on statelessness and asylum.

But no country was a “human rights paradise”, the Experts said and Uzbekistan was not an exception.  Despite the release of political prisoners, many people remained imprisoned for political reasons, and there were concerns about impunity and lack of accountability for torture, especially in places of detention. 

Although Uzbekistan had adopted a law against corruption in 2017, the phenomenon seemed to be increasing, while additional efforts were needed to strengthen judicial independence.  Given the reports of homophobia and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons, Uzbekistan should adopt a comprehensive anti-discrimination law, including on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Akmal Saidov, First Vice-President of the Legislative Chamber of the Oliy Majlis (Parliament) and the Director of the National Human Rights Centre of Uzbekistan, said in the introduction of the report that, after the national consultations, Uzbekistan was ready to adopt the national strategy on human rights.  It had promulgated more than 30 laws to strengthen civil and political rights, including the new law that would grant the citizenship to 50,000 people residing in the country since 1995.

The delegation explained that the President of Uzbekistan had condemned torture and that the criminal code had been brought in line with article 1 of the Convention against Torture.  The latest report of the Transparency International had improved Uzbekistan’ ranking and was an objective assessment of the advances in the fight against corruption.  Fruitful dialogue existed with the World Bank and the International Labour Organization on the issue of forced labour, including in the cotton industry, in which the Government was actively applying labour standards.  Child labour was prohibited and was completely eradicated from cotton harvesting.

Mr. Saidov concluded by thanking the Committee for the frank, fruitful and constructive dialogue and said that Uzbekistan would develop a roadmap for the implementation of Committee’s recommendations.

Ahmed Amin Fathalla, Committee Chairperson, in his concluding remarks, welcomed the commitment to implement the Committee’s recommendations and urged Uzbekistan to continue to improve the representation of women, which remained weak.

The delegation of Uzbekistan consisted of representatives of the Oliy Majlis (Parliament), National Human Rights Centre, Ministry of Interior, Office of Security Council under the President and the Permanent Mission of Uzbekistan to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee’s concluding observations and recommendations on the report of Uzbekistan will be issued at the end of the session on 27 March.  All the documents relating to the Committee’s work, including reports submitted by States parties, can be found on the session’s webpage

Summaries of the Committee’s public meetings in English and French will be available at the United Nations Office at Geneva News and Media page, while the webcast can be viewed at UN Web TV

The Committee will next meet in public at 3 p.m. today, 3 March, to review the sixth periodic report of Tunisia (CCPR/C/TUN/6).

Report

The Committee has before it the fifth periodic report of Uzbekistan (CCPR/C/UZB/5) and its reply to the list of issues (CCPR/C/UZB/RQ/5).  

Presentation of the Report

AKMAL SAIDOV, First Vice-President of the Legislative Chamber of the Oliy Majlis (Parliament) and Director of the National Human Rights Centre of Uzbekistan, in the introduction of the report recalled that on 2 March 28 years ago, Uzbekistan had become a member of the United Nations, thus its appearance before the Committee on this day was very symbolic. 

Fundamental changes had taken place in the area of human rights over the last three years, he said.  Parliamentary elections had taken place at the end of 2019 under the motto New Uzbekistan, New Elections and for the first time in its history, Uzbekistan had invited 800 foreign observers, including some from international organizations such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.  Mr. Saidov stressed that 74 per cent of members of Parliament had been elected for the first time; the number of women in the lower chamber stand at 32 per cent and in the upper chamber at 25 per cent. 

Uzbekistan had thus fulfilled the United Nations recommendation to ensure at least 30 per cent participation of women in Parliament.  On 24 January, in his State of the Union address to Parliament, the President had highlighted the priorities for the year to come, including in the sphere of human rights.

A draft national strategy on human rights based on the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action had been prepared.  Following the national consultations on 28 February with civil society organizations, human rights defenders and international and United Nations organizations, Uzbekistan was now ready to adopt the strategy, Mr. Saidov reaffirmed.

More than 30 laws to strengthen civil and political rights had been adopted, including the new Law on Citizenship that would grant the citizenship to 50,000 people residing in the country since 1995.  Strict judicial and legal measures had been put in place and two special procedure mandate holders had been invited to visit the country in the past two years, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers.

To strengthen the independence of the judiciary, Uzbekistan had instituted the Higher Judicial Council and had updated the legislation on the Constitutional Court.  Mr. Saidov was particularly pleased to report that the number of not guilty verdicts had increased, from only 28 in 2016 to 863 in 2019, which demonstrated the growing independence of the judiciary.  A national preventive mechanism in line with the “Ombudsman Plus” formula had been set up.

The national helpdesk of the President had been created to bring the State closer to the people; since then, more than 3.5 million people had contacted the helpdesk and 12 per cent of the requests had been dealt with on the spot.  The ties with international and national civil society organizations, including the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, had been strengthened.

Furthermore, Uzbekistan had increased the role and the significance of the national human rights institution, strengthened the capacity of the Parliamentary Ombudsman, created the post of the Business Ombudsman and on 28 February, it had nominated the Child Ombudsman.  The national commission to combat human trafficking and forced labour and the national commission on gender equality had been set up.  In 2019, two important laws had been adopted, on gender equality and domestic violence.

To uphold human rights, non-governmental organizations and human rights defenders had an important role to play.  Uzbekistan had adopted the law on social partnerships and social oversight, initiated the drafting of the new code on non-profit non-State organizations and was reviewing the legislation on the media.  The Government was taking measures to implement the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights and Education and had hosted the Asian Forum on Human Rights in 2018.

In conclusion, Mr. Saidov said that Uzbekistan was still facing challenges in implementing the Covenant : the training of civil servants on the country’s international human rights obligations needed strengthening, a system for implementation of the Committee’s decisions on communications was lacking and the procedures for the implementation of the Covenant by courts were still to be established. 

Questions by the Committee Experts

At the beginning of the dialogue, Committee Experts welcomed the progress in developing the culture of human rights in Uzbekistan, especially since the election of the new President.  They noted with appreciation the release of political prisoners, prohibition of the use of evidence extracted under torture and progress towards gender equality.  But no country was a “human rights paradise”, they said, noting that many people remained in prison for political reasons.

The Experts raised questions about the lack of commitment to implement the Committee’s decisions on communications, including evoking statutes of limitation to justify the non-implementation in at least four cases.  The invoking of domestic law to evade the commitments arising from the Covenant was contrary to the Covenant itself, which stipulated in its preamble the supremacy of international law.  Did the law on the state of emergency ban derogations from the Covenant rights?

They sought clarification regarding the changes in the legislation in 2017 and 2019 that had affected the funding of the Ombudsman, and whether the institution was accredited under the Paris Principles. 

Taking positive note of the improvements in the conditions of detention, notably in nutrition and healthcare, they were concerned that non-governmental organizations and international organization could not visit places of detention.  In this context, they asked why the International Committee of the Red Cross had suspended its visits to Uzbek places of detention and whether it was due to obstruction it faced.  They also asked the delegation to comment on reports of forced labour related to cotton harvest in prisons, the new law on the national preventive mechanism and recent outbreaks of violence in prisons.

Although Uzbekistan had adopted a law against corruption in 2017, this phenomenon seemed to be increasing, Experts noted and asked about the composition of the anti-corruption body and whether the new criminal code, which was currently being revised, would include bribery and liability of legal entities for the crime of corruption.

The Experts stressed the importance of adopting comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation including on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.  Given the reports of homophobia, did the national plans of action and the training provided by the Government cover sexual orientation?  Experts noted that, in the process of drafting the new criminal code, an “expert group” was considering the decriminalization of consensual sexual acts between men – who was the group comprised of and did it include civil society representatives?

They asked about prosecutions and redress for acts of violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons.  Because same-sex relations were criminalized, individuals were reluctant to get tested or seek treatment for HIV/AIDS and to seek redress before courts for violations on the grounds of their sexual orientation. 

The fight against extremism and terrorism might negatively affect the expressions of those religious beliefs not sanctioned by the State.  Alleged “violations of prisons rules” had been levied against human rights defenders to prolong the length of their detention. 

Recalling the events in Andijan in 2005, in which military and security services had fired into a crowd and killed some 700 civilians, the Experts asked about the status of criminal proceedings against perpetrators.

Experts welcomed the recently adopted legislation on gender-based violence and asked whether it included marital rape and domestic violence and what was being done to encourage women to report violence.  “Reconciliation committees”, tasked with “saving families”, encouraged women to stay with their abusers to prevent divorce, the Experts noted with concern and asked how the rights of victims of domestic violence were properly protected in light of this policy seeking to avoid divorce.

Committee Experts congratulated Uzbekistan on the progress made in furthering gender equality and remarked that there was a severe underrepresentation of women in certain sectors, including in the Government, judiciary and amongst managers in the private sector.

Impunity for acts of torture and ill-treatment was an issue of concern - the number of prosecutions and convictions for torture and ill-treatment was low, the penalties imposed on perpetrators were lenient and the law apparently allowed amnesty.  With the extension of its power in March 2019, the protection of the rights of detainees was within the Ombudsman’s mandate.  The Experts asked about the follow-up to the Ombudsman’s investigations and the procedure in place to investigate allegations of torture and ill-treatment of detainees. 

Could the delegation comment on the allegations of torture and ill-treatment of Prosecutor-General Rashitjon Kadirov and 12 co-defendants, who had been prosecuted for bribery?

Replies by the Delegation

Responding to questions raised about the legal status of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in domestic legislation, the delegation explained that the Constitution stipulated the primacy of international norms over domestic laws, a principle enshrined in all domestic laws.  Uzbekistan was a State party to over 80 international instruments and this multitude of international norms highlighted the need for judicial training in their application.  The delegation reiterated Uzbekistan’s commitment to fulfilling all the obligations stemming from international law.

The Ombudsman had the right to appeal to the Constitutional Court with regards to individual complaints, even though in the past two years it had chosen not to exercise that right.  Uzbekistan had adopted the “Ombudsman Plus” model, which granted the Ombudsman the right to conduct visits to any prison, along with non-governmental organizations if it so wished, while the rights of inmates to appeal to the Ombudsman was enshrined in law.  Postal boxes were installed in prisons through which inmates could contact the Ombudsman. 

In line with the Paris Principles, an accreditation request for the Ombudsman had been submitted to Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions and was currently being reviewed, delegates added.  The Ombudsman had received 130 complaints via its direct hotline, including those related to court verdicts.  The delegation reiterated that the funding allocated to the institution were sufficient.

The dialogue with the International Committee of the Red Cross was very cooperative and included a number of meetings and fruitful discussions on a broad spectrum of issues, including the resumption of visits to prisons.  Their decision to suspend the visits was a “politically motived step” aiming to undermine Uzbekistan’s position at the Universal Periodic Review, the delegation said. 

The International Committee of the Red Cross had violated the principle of confidentiality of prison visits and had sometimes informed the press and ambassadors about the results before informing the Government.  In 2019, the ombudsman had visited 26 prisons, met with 248 inmates and issued 7 recommendations to the Constitutional Court.  The German Agency for International Cooperation, Human Rights Watch and the ambassador of Finland had also visited the prisons.

The delegation asked the Committee to provide the statistics on the number of political prisoners.

Responding to the reports of forced labour in prisons, the delegation stressed that none of the International Labour Organization conventions prohibited inmate labour and that the inmates had both rights and responsibilities.  The inmates could not choose the work because “it is a prison after all”, delegates said.

On the conditions of detention, the delegation stressed that prisons in Uzbekistan had become one of the most transparent parts of society.  The population of the 43 detention facilities had significantly dropped over the past 18 years so overcrowding was not a problem; there were three hot meals per day and 24/7 access to medical services.  The national prevention mechanism under the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment had been set up and non-governmental organizations could visit the prisons.

Decriminalization of certain acts, a broad application of measures alternative to detention and the promotion of conciliation had reduced prison population by an estimated 200,000 people.  Support measures to foster the re-socialization of inmates had been instituted, for example, support finding a job.  Since prisons in Uzbekistan were 30 per cent empty, the country could assist some European countries that faced overcrowding and house their inmates.

Between 2015 and 2019, three correction officials had been found guilty under Article 235 of the criminal code in relation to their behaviour vis-à-vis inmates.  Inmates could make confidential complaints about the behaviour of corrections officials through a dedicated hotline.  No violent deaths had been registered in 2017.  Article 221 of the criminal code foresaw liability for agents who contravened rules of penitentiary institutions, for instance by behaving in a manner that disrupted the lives of inmates.  In applying this article, courts took into consideration mitigating and aggravating circumstances.  In 2019, two cases related to this article had been brought before courts.

Women were the lynchpin of families and a priority was the protection of their rights and opportunities.  Two laws geared towards gender equality had been adopted the previous year, including on harassment.  Gender analysis of legal acts was now conducted to ensure gender equality, the president of the Senate was a woman and a national commission for gender equality had been set up six months ago.  A decree to promote and protect women’s interests and raise their role in society aimed to ensure equal opportunities for women in all sectors; it was being implemented in collaboration with community associations known as mahalas

Uzbekistan had registered a 23.4 per cent decrease in the incidence of violence against women; perpetrators had been sanctioned in 1,000 of about 1,400 cases.  A network of 197 shelters covered all the 14 regions, including in remote areas, and provided women, among others, with legal assistance.
 
Marital rape was considered an aggravating circumstance in the law.  The Government was against divorce where children were concerned and carried out programmes accordingly.  Often the family got back together for the sake of the child, and that was a great human value.

On corruption, Uzbekistan was a party to the United Nations Convention against Corruption and a member of the anti-corruption network of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, while the anti-corruption commissions had been created in the two chambers of Parliament.  The latest report of the Transparency International had improved Uzbekistan’ ranking in an objective assessment of the improvements made.

The delegation stressed that the events in Andijan in 2005, in which 1987 and not 700 persons had been killed, had been related to acts of terrorism.  A delegation of the European Union had visited the site and had concluded that international investigation was not necessary.  The European Union had also lifted the sanctions against Uzbekistan after concluding that the events were indeed linked to terrorism.  The perpetrators had been arrested and sanctioned.

A law regulating the use of weapons classified weapons in different, strictly defined categories and prohibited the carrying of weapons for self-defence and in public spaces. 

There was no need to adopt anti-discrimination legislation, the delegation said and stressed that law did not discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons.  However, Islam, the religion of 95 per cent of the population, did not approve of this “lifestyle”; “It is not in keeping with our mind-set”, delegates added.  The decriminalization of same-sex relations had sparked outrage in the population and did not garner consensus.  Further discussions, including with civil society, were needed.

Noting the lack of international consensus on the legal definition of extremism, the delegation said that, according to the Uzbek national strategy, activities aiming at disrupting the political and social order, changing the constitutional order, taking power through violence, inciting to racial and other forms of hatred, amongst other, could amount to extremism.

In a presidential decree, the President of Uzbekistan had condemned torture; the legislation had been amended and the criminal code brought in line with article 1 of the Convention against Torture.  A roadmap for the implementation of the recommendations by the Committee against Torture had been developed.  Detailed responses would be provided in writing on all individual cases related to torture that had been mentioned by Experts, delegates added.

Questions by the Committee Experts

Committee Experts recognized Uzbekistan’s commitment to eradicating forced labour, notably child forced labour, however, there were reports, including by reputable non-governmental organizations, that public sector workers were forced to pick cotton.  The quota system for cotton harvesting imposed on local officials – and the sanctions they could face if quotas were missed - was a driver of forced labour, Experts said and asked how Uzbekistan addressed the structural issues contributing to forced labour.

On citizenship and nationality, the Experts commended the recent presidential decree of asylum and the recent changes to the law on civil registration that contributed to the prevention of statelessness.  It seemed still difficult to obtain residency permits in Tashkent and other major cities and there were restrictions on unregistered persons’ ability to buy a property.  Reports claimed that restrictions on travel abroad were still imposed, including on released political prisoners, and citizenship could still be revoked.

The Experts took note of all the steps towards a more open society characterised by freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.  They sought clarifications about the criteria used for blocking media outlets and online content, whether the system of authorization rather that notification of peaceful assemblies would be maintained and the restrictions on the registration of political parties.  Was it true that the officials discouraged the registration of new organizations focusing on politically sensitive issues, including human rights?

On the independence of the judiciary, Experts flagged the use of vague criteria such as the “public opinion” of judges’ work in the selection and nomination process.  Noting that the Government had expressed qualms about Jehovah's Witnesses, Experts sought clarification on its official stance on this religion.

Replies by the Delegation

In response to questions raised on forced labour, the delegation explained that Uzbekistan had established a fruitful dialogue with the World Bank and the International Labour Organization on this issue.  In 2019, 90 per cent of the workers in the cotton sector were local volunteers and the Government was making progress in the implementation of labour standards in this field.  Child labour was prohibited and was completely eradicated from the cotton industry, in which so much progress had been made that the members of the European Parliament had voted in favour of a textile agreement with Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan, which was a party to 17 conventions of the International Labour Organization, was withdrawing from the cotton industry, leaving it exclusively to the private sector.  With this measure, the Government confirmed its choice for a market economy.

All citizens had the right to move freely across the territory and to leave the country, except when restricted by law.  Uzbekistan had recently eliminated the propiska, the residence permit system, a remnant from the Soviet era. 
  
The presidential decree of 1 January 2019 had simplified the procedures for leaving the country and had introduced biometric passports, which had been issued to more than one million persons.  However, the biometric passport could be refused to anyone subject to criminal proceedings, legal proceedings and a criminal conviction; it could be refused to anyone who did not comply with court decisions, for example, non-payment of child support; or to anyone who provided false information. 

An Uzbek citizen could lose nationality if he or she had resided outside the country for more than seven years, obtained another nationality or served in a foreign army.  To combat statelessness, Uzbek citizenship was granted to all children born in the country.

On the independence of the judiciary, Uzbekistan had hosted the Special Rapporteur on the independence of the judiciary and was awaiting the release of the report and recommendations.  Uzbekistan would develop a roadmap for their implementation.

On freedom of religion, delegates explained that proselytism was banned because it could undermine the political stability of the country that, historically, was multi-religious.  Missionary activities were banned because they could disrupt the balance between religions.

Access to certain websites could be blocked if they called for the change of the constitutional order, called for violence or incited racial hatred or extremism.  Full access to foreign news and human rights websites had been restored.

The delegation explained that code on non-government organizations had led to criticism by some, including ambassadors.  Taking into account the opinion of its foreign partners, the Government was revising the code with broad participation of non-governmental organizations.  The revised code would be in line with international standards, delegates assured.  Reforms of the registration of political parties were underway, which would nevertheless comply with the constitutional prohibition on parties created on racial, ethnic or religious grounds.

Concluding Remarks

AKMAL SAIDOV, First Vice-President of the Legislative Chamber of the Oliy Majlis (Parliament), Director of the National Human Rights Centre of Uzbekistan, concluded by thanking the Committee for the frank, fruitful and constructive dialogue and said that Uzbekistan would develop a roadmap for the implementation of the Committee’s recommendations.

AHMED AMIN FATHALLA, Committee Chairperson, in his concluding remarks, thanked the delegation for the productive dialogue and its straightforward responses.  He welcomed the commitment to implement the Committee’s recommendations and urged Uzbekistan to continue to improve the representation of women, which remained weak.

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