Turkmenistan + 1 more

Religious freedom in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan examined

News and Press Release
Originally published
Religious freedom commission officials weigh rights, security concerns

By Jeffrey Thomas, Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - How the United States can do justice to its policy of promoting democracy and human rights without compromising its strategic military interests in Central Asia was the focus of a July 27 briefing in Washington titled "U.S. Strategic Dilemmas in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan."

The briefing was held jointly by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

While the CSIS is a nonprofit public policy research center, UNCIRF represents a kind of public institution that may be unfamiliar in some parts of the world. Congress created the commission through the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to give religious freedom and other freedoms a more prominent place in U.S. foreign policy.

"The Commission was mandated both to monitor the status of freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief globally and to make recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress as to how the U.S. government can further the protection and promotion of this freedom and related human rights in its relations with other countries," USCIRF Chair Michael Cromartie said in his opening remarks at the July 27 briefing.

Cromartie and USCIRF Vice Chair Felice D. Gaer began the briefing by explaining why the commission in early 2005 recommended that both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan be named a "Country of Particular Concern."

In calling Turkmenistan "among the most repressive states in the world," Cromartie said the USCIRF has recommended that Turkmenistan not only be designated a Country of Particular Concern but that the U.S. government should:

  • suspend all nonhumanitarian assistance to the government of Turkmenistan, except programs that serve identifiable U.S. national security interests connected to the anti-terror campaign or U.S. assistance to appropriate nongovernmental organizations, or cultural or educational exchanges;

  • scrutinize all aspects of any assistance programs in Turkmenistan to ensure that these programs do not facilitate Turkmen government policies or practices that result in religious freedom violations;

  • suspend state visits between the United States and Turkmenistan until such time as religious freedom conditions in the country have improved significantly; and

  • advocate for creation of a United Nations Special Rapporteur to investigate and report publicly on the human rights situation in Turkmenistan to the United Nations.
Gaer said the Commission likewise found the government of Uzbekistan to be responsible for severe human rights violations, including freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief, and recommended to the secretary of state that Uzbekistan be named a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

Gaer acknowledged that security threats do exist in Uzbekistan, including from members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical fundamentalist Islamic group, and other groups that claim a religious linkage, "but these threats do not excuse or justify the scope and harshness of the government's ill treatment of religious believers."

Among the policy recommendations made by the commission to the U.S. government is a recommendation that U.S. assistance to the Uzbek government, "with the exception of assistance to improve humanitarian conditions and advance human rights, should be made contingent upon establishing and implementing a specific timetable for the government to take concrete steps to improve conditions of freedom of religion or belief and observe international human rights standards," Gaer said.

If Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice accepts the USCIRF recommendation that both countries be classed as Countries of Particular Concern, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan would share that ranking with Burma, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), Eritrea, Iran, the People's Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Vietnam.

The law "makes explicit that the policy of the United States must be to take active steps with regard to those countries deemed to be particularly severe violators of religious freedom," USCIRF Deputy Director for Policy Tad Stahnke explained at the hearing.

"It does not automatically entail sanctions, but requires that the Secretary of State enter direct consultations with a country to find ways to improve the situation," he said.

The law that established the commission also established an Office of International Religious Freedom in the Department of State headed by an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. The office is required to report annually on the conditions of religious freedom worldwide as well as U.S. actions to promote religious freedom.

The panelists at the hearing included Professor Stephen Blank of the U.S. Army War College, Daniel Kimmage of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Martha Brill Olcott of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Cory Welt of the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program.

Their prepared statements are available in English at the USCIRF Web site.

Also available are the statements by USCIRF Chair Michael Cromartie, USCIRF Vice Chair Felice D. Gaer, and USCIRF Deputy Director for Policy Tad Stahnke.

For more information, see the USCIRF Policy Brief on Uzbekistan.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)