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Stop boycotting Uzbek cotton, say country's rights defenders

Is it time to end the boycott on Uzbek cotton?
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Is it time to end the boycott on Uzbek cotton?

Two prominent human rights activists from Uzbekistan who monitor the country’s cotton sector recently traveled to Washington to lobby and meet with various U.S. officials, agencies and international organizations. They described the efforts of civil society and the government to end forced labor abuses in the fields and focused on the continued boycott of over 300 Western apparel companies who refuse to use Uzbek cotton while abuses persist. VOA's Navbahor Imamova talked to Azam Farmonov, a former political prisoner and longtime advocate for farmers rights, and Shuhrat Ganiyev, who heads an non-governmental organization in Bukhara, providing legal assistance. Both firmly believe that the time has come for Western companies to end the boycott. They say it is is hindering the growth of the economy and badly needed jobs for Uzbekistan’s youth.

Interview with Azam Farmonov

Transcript, May 1, 2019

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Hello from Washington! This week a group of Uzbek human rights activists is in the U.S. capital. They have held talks with various organizations, mainly focused on labor rights, including the Cotton Campaign, international coalition, fighting against forced labor in Uzbekistan. We have Azam Farmonov with us. Welcome to Washington.

Azam Farmonov, Uzbek activist: Thank you.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Today is the third day of your visit, isn’t it?

Azam Farmonov, Uzbek activist: Yes, it is.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: We've just seen you holding meetings at the ILO office, where we are now. I see you are running from one meeting to another... What have you been discussing? What is your overall goal here? We are aware that in general you are discussing forced labor issues. But it seems there is some specific news here.

Azam Farmonov, Uzbek activist: Indeed, there is a new approach. You know that the international community has been boycotting Uzbekistan's cotton products. We are here to initiate to end this boycott. We've formally approached several organizations to do this. There are several reasons for that. Over the past years the Uzbek government has been taking significant and real measures to eliminate forced labor. Under the dictatorship, some 13 years ago, this boycott was indeed expedient and relevant. But nowadays, especially for the last three years, the government has been taking measures to fight forced labor at a completely different level, applying new and efficient methods. I am sure that canceling this boycott will be beneficial for ordinary people, because the government officials have good jobs with good income anyway. This boycott has negative consequences to the unemployed people.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Have you measured the level of this boycott's impact? Because, until very recently, the Uzbek government was quite indifferent to the boycott. It never addressed its impact. Now that they began talks with the Cotton Campaign, and are promising more change and cooperation, why should the boycott stop? How much impact from this boycott do you see?

Azam Farmonov, Uzbek activist: I think by ending the boycott, you help our people. Consequently, enhancement of living standards will lead to better legal culture. Due to the boycott, no investments are coming to the country. And it is still in force today whereas the officials, as I mentioned before, feel quite comfortable as they have good jobs and live in good conditions. But millions of ordinary people have to seek jobs in Russia and Kazakhstan. I strongly believe that cancellation of this boycott would help these people.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: In other words, you are confident that once the boycott is off, the country will see more flow of investment from the outside?

Azam Farmonov, Uzbek activist: Of course, and this is not only my opinion. During the talks with the business community, they confirmed that they know Uzbekistan, they recognize the quality of our cotton, and the only obstacle for them to start investing is this boycott. The people will definitely be in the winning position if it is cancelled, and we believe that our appeal will be considered by the international community. For the last three days, we approached many international organizations in Washington, saying it is time to cancel this boycott. When we were in Brussels recently, we also asked the EU community to do the same. Naturally, there are also opposite opinions, but we believe the international community will consider our request. There are various views and doubts about the elimination of forced labor in our country. I cannot say that the forced labor is completely eliminated in Uzbekistan. But I highly appreciate the efforts and measures taken by the Uzbek government against it. This is why I think that it is time to end the boycott against the Uzbek cotton.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You said that the business community is interested in the end of this boycott. But it was them who initiated this boycott on the basis that the Uzbek cotton was the product of forced labor, and it was them who decided not to buy, sell or deal with the Uzbek cotton.

Azam Farmonov, Uzbek activist: Your question is certainly relevant. Because, indeed once upon a time the Uzbek cotton was harvested using forced and child labor. And the businesses wanted to boycott. But witnessing current policy by the Uzbek authorities, seeing recent reforms in Uzbekistan, they hope that the boycott will end soon - they want to buy the Uzbek cotton, invest in the country and produce goods.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: What is the main argument you are hearing from the other side? Are they arguing that many Uzbeks are still forced to pick cotton and that this issue is not resolved yet?

Azam Farmonov, Uzbek activist: Yes, in their opinion, as I stated before, the forced labor in Uzbekistan is not completely eliminated. But the officials are taking real steps to eliminate it. I would like to bring your attention to some indisputable facts. The child labor is fully eliminated in the country. During the monitoring, as the human right defender, I did not notice a single case of a school children harvesting cotton involuntarily... Furthermore, there were times when almost all students of universities were forced to go to the fields to pick cotton. The same situation was observed with the personnel of state budget organizations. Now this is not the case anymore. There is no forced labor there. The government increased minimum pay for cotton pickers, which fostered wide participation of the unemployed in harvesting. All of this, i.e. elimination of child labor, absence of students, teachers, and medical personnel in cotton fields confirm the elimination of systematic forced labor. Nowadays, indeed, it is not systematic anymore, no forced labor is used in harvesting.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: But we saw hundreds of thousands of people still forced to go to the fields last year. Even the ILO reported on this.

Azam Farmonov, Uzbek activist: Correct, according to the ILO report, nearly 170 thousand people were forced to pick cotton. But if we look back, 5-10 years ago, almost all Uzbek school children were forced to participate in harvesting. If I am not mistaken, we have around 6-7 million children going to school, and 3-4 million of them were indeed forced to take part in cotton harvesting. Plus almost all personnel of all state budget organizations and students in Uzbekistan were forced to work in the cotton fields as well. So, if we compare, 170 thousand people versus 4-5 million people. I know 170 thousand forced people is not okay. We must change that. The government also recognizes this in its reports, saying that the forced labor is not fully eliminated, and that they are going to eliminate it step by step. Therefore, these efforts should be welcomed.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You are in DC, in the ILO office, which brought your here. People listening to you may be surprised by your position... How come this human rights defender, who spent 11 years behind bars, also living in rural Uzbekistan, picking cotton and witnessing the issue; someone who has suffered from the policies, is now eager to improve the image of Uzbekistan. If this boycott ends, this will improve first of all the reputation of the government rather than bringing some economic benefit. This will be a great victory of the Uzbek government if the massive campaign against forced labor in Uzbekistan will stop, won’t it? So, why are you doing this? What would you say to those who accuse you of selling out or think that you are corrupt?

Azam Farmonov, Uzbek activist: What can I say... Indeed, we cannot close our eyes. We have been witnessing great changes in the country for the last three years. I do not state this from only my own perspective. We saw that dozens of former political prisoners having been released recently. In addition, people now can use their right to directly address their concerns to the government. True, this does not mean that all of human rights are implemented in full. But at least the officials destroyed a great gap between the government and people by starting listening to problems and launched feedback mechanisms. I am for the cancellation of the boycott for the sake of better livelihoods of ordinary people, not for the reputation of the government. So, coming back to your question, if people say that Azam Farmonov is bribed by the government…

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: ... or serves the interests or image of the government...

Azam Farmonov, Uzbek activist: In fact I am not defending the interests of the government, I am defending interests of my people. Because the people for years had been suffering from the Karimov regime, which eventually ended after his death. Still there are flaws, and the government has enormous work to do. But the most important issue is the government led by MIrziyoyev makes lots of efforts to make reforms, and we should certainly appreciate this...

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: …and you believe in these reforms, don’t you?

Azam Farmonov, Uzbek activist: I strongly believe that one day Uzbekistan will see real democracy. Therefore I came here with the initiative to cancel the boycott.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: In your opinion, does the current government differ from the previous one?

Azam Farmonov, Uzbek activist: Of course, no need to list each detail. It is obvious for most people - yesterday people has no hope for the future, and people could not express their critical views. Today you can observe that people talk freely and some critical reports appear in the press, even some on state TV and media. Of course, this does not guarantee democratic changes and that human rights are implemented in full. But this is the process, intermediate stage. The most important thing here, in my view, is making first steps towards this.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: One more question... The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recently issued a report, criticizing the situation in Uzbekistan. It says things have not improved and that the country should still be treated as a Country of Particular Concern. The report says that the Uzbek government still lacks a mechanism to help the people removed from the blacklist, who were pardoned, acquitted and released. The issue of rehabilitation of former prisoners is quite sensitive... You are also a former prisoner. What can we see from your real life experience? Did you face any obstacles in your efforts to return to normal life, find a job and housing? What can you say based on your experience?

Azam Farmonov, Uzbek activist: Thank you for this relevant question. As a former prisoner, after the release, I wrote to the the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan and Karakalpakstan and the offices of Prosecutor General of Uzbekistan and Karakalpakstan. Unfortunately they did not consider it comprehensively and rejected. There are dozens, hundreds of people similarly convicted and sentenced based on fabricated evidence. Frankly speaking, everyone makes mistakes. Bur there will be opportunity and time to review this issue thoroughly once more. Because, as I told before, this is the intermediate stage, it requires some time. I have recently talked with an official on this topic touching the subject of hundreds of us who were unfairly convicted and spent very hard times behind bars in Uzbekistan. So I raised the issue of responsibility of those who made these decisions. He responded that this takes some time and depends on the will of certain high-level officials. This confirms that the justice structure still uses administrative command system, and the rehabilitation issue is not resolved due to lack in decisiveness of judges. Otherwise, for example, in my case, it is crystal clear that all the arguments against me were fictitious, and this was proven based on exact facts. But I believe, there is a difference between our yesterday and today. And I hope tomorrow it will be even better. And hundreds of people unfairly convicted like me will be acquitted, and those who used physical and moral abuse will be brought to justice, which requires some time.

Shuhrat Ganiyev: It's time to end the boycott on Uzbek cotton
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Interview with Shuhrat Ganiev

Transcript, May 1, 2019

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Previously the Uzbek government did not react to the criticism of the Cotton Campaign. That has clearly changed. But now, when a serious communication has been established, why should the Cotton Campaign cancel the boycott? Is it not the campaign’s main leverage?

Shuhrat Ganiyev: I will express my personal view, with which you can agree or not, but this is an issue we must take seriously. Why should the boycott be cancelled now? Firstly, real reforms have begun in our country and this is a fact that we confirm as independent Uzbek activists. We observed this during our monitoring and saw real changes in society and the economy both at national and international level. If we, as a civil society, do not engage the government now and do not take steps to cancel the boycott, it could slow down the reform process and the previous situation could even come back. We have to help these changes to happen. We should not isolate our country but rather show that we are open.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Is that why you want the boycott to end?

Shuhrat Ganiyev: Yes, of course. The first justification is economic development. We know that once the boycott is cancelled, instead of only Russian and Chinese companies, we hope to see well-known companies that are responsible, open and more democratic, such as Adidas, Nike or other big brands. Secondly, let me give you an example from the 2018 harvest. In my province Bukhara alone around 7,000 migrant women who used to go to Russia for work, stayed in the country and earned $300-350 during the 2018 cotton harvest. This year they were paid higher wages. One woman, with tears in her eyes, told me: “This year we don’t need to leave our families and go to Russia. Now the government and the farmers pay us good rates in cash, which is a significant opportunity in rural Uzbekistan. Now we stay in our communities with our families, children, husbands and we are thankful for these changes”. I confirm this as a representative of Uzbek civil society. Lifting the boycott could lead to further improvements. International investment can help Uzbekistan develop proper market economy mechanisms and jobs. The number of people staying in the country could rise from 7,000 up to 700,000 or even 7,000,000. This would be the biggest benefit for us.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: How would you describe the scope of impact of this boycott? Please explain how you see this boycott's effect.

Shuhrat Ganiyev: You know, during the Karimov regime… now we can speak openly about this… in those difficult times, I personally was for the boycott of Uzbekistan...

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: ... you mean to boycott on the Uzbek cotton?

Shuhrat Ganiyev: Yes, not to buy cotton and textile goods produced in Uzbekistan. I supported the boycott because we did not have any way to influence the government. And the boycott had a real effect at that time. But now the boycott has a negative impact on people in Uzbekistan rather than a positive impact.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: I also asked Azam Farmonov this question: why do Uzbek human rights defenders work so closely with the ILO? Are you still independent? Some people – you know who I am referring to - may question your motivation and independence. This is a relevant question because you are knowing for raising important human rights issues and now you also support the reforms in the country. Why?

Shuhrat Ganiyev: You are not the first nor the last person asking this. I don’t think it is a fair question. I never lost my independence. During difficult times, even when we were threatened with jail, I spoke my mind and I was never afraid. Today, we can talk about anything we like and it will not affect me negatively upon my return. I am a realist. All I I do is to verify factual changes observed during our monitoring. For example: there are no children in the fields – this is a fact. People get paid cash for pickling cotton – this is another fact. The currency reform means that more people try to open businesses in Uzbekistan rather than migrating somewhere else. Another fact.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: But according to the ILO report, we still have nearly 200 thousand people forced to pick cotton – this is a large number.

Shuhrat Ganiyev: To be more precise - 170 000 people - which is 7% of pickers. Indeed, this is a big number, and we must continue to fight forced labor. I’m not saying that forced labor no longer exists. We have not stopped fighting. However, in the regions we witness legal measures taken against hokims. For instance last year out of 260 hokims, many were sanctioned, penalized and even dismissed. We must recognize these positive changes. I do not care what some people say, I base my monitoring on facts.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You said you believe that the officials fight against forced labor. However, there many people who do not believe this. They say this is simply a show to impress international organizations. For example, the quota system still exists, which the Uzbek officials do not like to talk about. Will forced labor ever end when the state order system remains in place. True, the government introduced textile clusters but the scope is limited. Some people say that cotton production is still based on forced labor. What would you say to these people?

Shuhrat Ganiyev: We need to look at trends. Three years ago some 2.5 million people – students, medical personnel, school teachers, pupils, who used to harvest cotton every year against their will. Today 170,000 people were forced. This is still a big number and we must fight to keep minimizing it. But there is a clear trend of significant improvements. If we continue these steps, I believe we will reduce this number down to zero.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Should the fight against forced labor continue?

Shuhrat Ganiyev: For sure, no matter what. But it is time to cancel the boycott of Uzbek cotton and textiles. But as an activist I must also raise some systematic changes we would like to see. Firstly, The local government officials – hokims and deputy hokims – should be elected by the people, not appointed. Secondly, the quota system is a legacy from the Soviet era and it must be gradually replaced with market based systems. Thirdly, farmers should have the right to independently manage their land. We hope for these changes.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Many thanks... We talked to Shuhrat Ganiev, a human rights activist from Bukhara.

We started our report with Azam Formonov. These are two activists who came to Washington from Uzbekistan to engage the human rights community and explain the current situation in their country. Thank you very much again. Your views are always very interesting for us. You have just heard Azam Farmonov and Shuhrat Ganiev, who support the idea of ending the boycott on the Uzbek cotton, firmly believing that that kind of change would bring positive changes to Uzbekistan. How do you see the situation? Your views are very relevant, especially if you live in cotton growing areas of Uzbekistan and closely familiar with these issues. Please write us. I am Navbahor Imamova from Washington. Good bye!

Shuhrat Ganiyev: Thank you so much, Navbahor.