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Volume 453: debated on Tuesday 28 November 2006

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what assessment she has made of the impact of the (a) arms embargo and (b) restrictions on admission to the European Union included in the restrictive measures against Uzbekistan adopted by the EU on 14 November 2005. (101973)

We believe that the EU’s twin approach to Uzbekistan of restrictive measures while keeping open the channels for dialogue has had some impact. The EU measures and the EU-sponsored UN Resolution in November 2005 signalled to Uzbekistan that they could not normalise their foreign relations without movement on human rights and Andizhan. The EU has seen a new willingness to engage on the part of the Uzbek Government. Pierre Morel, the EU Special Representative to Central Asia, visited Tashkent in October. On 8 November an EU-Uzbekistan Co-operation Council took place, the first since 2004. The EU is now exploring Uzbekistan’s offer of an expert-level meeting on the events in Andizhan and a structured dialogue on human rights.

We are encouraged by the acquittal of the independent journalist Ulugbek Khaidarov on 7 November and the freeing of human rights defender Arabboy Qodirov on 13 November. We hope that these are signals of a readiness on the part of the Uzbeks to review cases against other human rights defenders and independent journalists in prison. We also note the dropping of the case against the non-governmental organisation (NGO), US Development Assistance Inc., and hope that this can lead to the resumption of the work of leading international NGOs in Uzbekistan.

However, we continue to have serious concerns about the overall lack of progress on human rights in Uzbekistan. These are detailed in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s latest 2006 Annual Human Rights Report and were behind our decision to co-sponsor a new United Nations General Assembly resolution on Uzbekistan in November 2006.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs when the restrictive measures against Uzbekistan adopted by the EU on 14 November 2005 were last reviewed (a) by her Department and (b) at the European Council; and what the findings were of each review. (101974)

The UK played an active role when the EU, through October and early November 2006, reviewed the restrictive measures on Uzbekistan against the criteria set out in October 2005. At the General Affairs and External Relations Council on 13 November 2006, EU Foreign Ministers extended the arms embargo for 12 months and the targeted visa ban for six months, but also decided to lift the suspension of technical meetings under the EU-Uzbekistan Partnership and Co-operation Agreement (PCA). This proportionate response by the EU balanced recognition of the lack of progress made by Uzbekistan towards the October 2005 criteria, with acknowledgement of the recent overtures made by the Uzbeks to open up a dialogue on both Andizhan and human rights issues. A structured dialogue through the PCA, will enable the EU to exploit new opportunities for dialogue to improve the human rights situation in Uzbekistan.

EU Foreign Ministers undertook to review these measures again in three months time. This review period signals to the Uzbeks that we expect progress to have been made by then on the proposed EU-Uzbek experts talks on Andizhan and the structured dialogue on human rights. It keeps up the momentum for the improvements we want to see in Uzbekistan. The review will include an assessment on whether the dialogues on Andizhan and human rights have led to substantive progress on the ground in Uzbekistan.

We remain profoundly concerned about the situation in Uzbekistan. We continue to monitor the situation there closely. We shall continue to judge the Uzbeks by their actions, not just by their words, when we come to review the EU’s remaining measures against the EU’s criteria.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what recent assessment she has made of (a) freedom of political and religious expression in Uzbekistan and (b) the Uzbek government’s observance of human rights. (101975)

We remain profoundly concerned about the situation in Uzbekistan. We monitor closely the level of freedom of political and religious expression there.

The Government of Uzbekistan’s response to the events of 12-13 May 2005 in Andizhan resulted in a further clampdown on political and religious freedom of expression in Uzbekistan. Those human rights defenders, independent journalists and members of the political opposition who questioned the Uzbek authorities’ version of events in Andizhan have been subjected to detention, harassment and trials, many of them behind closed doors. These have caused serious international concern.

We are also disturbed by the increasing reports of discrimination, harassment and criminal prosecutions of Muslims accused of religious extremism, as well as harassment of religious minorities, notably Protestant Christians. A new law, passed in June 2006, outlawed the illegal production, storage, import or distribution of religious material in Uzbekistan.

Over the past year Uzbekistan has adopted legislation restricting the media and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), in contravention of its international obligations, expelled international NGOs from the country, and refused to allow international experts to visit. Our concerns are set out in detail in the latest Foreign and Commonwealth Office 2006 Annual Human Rights Report, of which I have placed a copy in the Library of the House.

Nevertheless, we are encouraged by the Uzbek government’s recent agreement to open a dialogue with the EU on human rights. We hope that this will lead to substantive progress in lifting the restrictions on religious and political freedom of expression, as well as a resumption of co-operation by the Uzbek government with international experts in the UN and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The EU’s response to these developments is set out in my answer today (UIN 101974).