Statements and speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk concludes his official visit to Uzbekistan with a press conference
15 March 2023
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk
Barchaga assalomu alaykum (Good afternoon everyone). Thank you for coming and let me begin by thanking very much the Government of Uzbekistan for the invitation to visit.
I have been warmly received over the past three days, and I have had frank and constructive discussions with a broad range of people, from senior Government officials to human rights defenders. This morning, I met President Mirziyoyev who elaborated on the reform process underway. A lot has been done on Uzbekistan’s transformation over the past six years and I deeply appreciate the President’s commitment to the centrality of human rights for the way forward. We should not forget that when we talk about human rights, it is a never-ending story.
It is essential that human rights are central to everyone's day-to-day lives. I want to give you an example: during my visit to Uzbekistan, I met with a young woman. She was using sign language, she shared her frustrations and disappointments. But she also expressed hope and explained how, as a graduate of human rights, she felt that human rights validated her as a human being – that they were important for her self-worth. In sign, she explained: “I want the system to change so young people like me can have more opportunities.” As High Commissioner, it is my hope that under the new reforms, a new Uzbekistan will provide her, and all Uzbeks, with the opportunity and ability to live a full and dignified life. I was deeply touched by her determination, and I also share her hope.
Uzbekistan has a colourful, rich but also very complex history. I last visited the country shortly after independence, and today I see a very different country. You only need to look around Tashkent. I see a country full of opportunities.
Uzbekistan inherited structures without much regard for human rights. Over the last six years this has fundamentally changed. Presidential reforms have included significant legal reforms in a wide range of areas; the end of forced labour in the cotton fields; the granting of nationality to over 76,000 former stateless people; the return and reintegration of well over 500 women and children from camps in Syria and elsewhere. I have asked other States to follow suit. There is strong cooperation with international human rights mechanisms, the Human Rights Council – as you know, Uzbekistan is a member of the Human Rights Council -- and my Office on a variety of issues, including the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Human rights education is very important and the Government committed to it.
During my visit this week, officials spoke about the magnitude of the challenges ahead. They also spoke of the difficulties they inherited – and let’s not forget, old habits die hard. Over time, human rights thinking and action have become more ingrained into the country’s fabric and society. Reforms have accelerated, and I am fully aware this is an incremental process with a lot of work still ahead. In fact, no one should be left behind. This is ultimately about human rights.
My Office appreciates the cooperation extended by the Government, including through my Regional Office for Central Asia, and its invitation to strengthen it further – this is a take away from my visit. During my visit I have had a chance to share my observations and my recommendations with the Government.
I raised, for example, the need to address a clear gender gap in all walks of life – from the political to public spheres. I welcome the strong commitment from the President and from the Chair of the Senate to redress this imbalance. I was encouraged to learn about plans to criminalise gender-based violence at home. I have also encouraged legislation to decriminalise same-sex relations, in line with its international human rights standards. And my Office is ready to assist the country to change its legislation which criminalises HIV transmission in all circumstances.
On the issue of torture and ill-treatment in detention, a zero-tolerance approach is key in law and in action. My Office has received assurances that Uzbekistan is working towards ratifying the key mechanism for monitoring and preventing torture, the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture. I hope and I trust this will occur swiftly because, we know, actions always speak louder than words. More broadly, a human rights perspective needs to be reinforced in the continuing reform process, especially when it comes to law enforcement and the administration of justice.
I also discussed the importance for State institutions to create an environment that is truly conducive for full involvement of civil society actors in the overall reform process.
We know, in the human rights world, a vibrant civil society is a vital cog of the human rights wheel. It is crucial for non-governmental organisations to operate in an environment free from interference. Similarly, a pluralistic environment is essential to encourage a diverse representation of views and broaden civic space.
A free media and open digital space can provide an enabling environment for all to participate fully in the country’s development and growth. This includes further action on the protection of journalists and the media, as well as freedom of expression.
During my visit, I also travelled to the Republic of Karakalpakstan and its capital Nukus. I had the privilege of engaging with youth at the Savitsky Museum and with community leaders and elders at a mahalla, or local neighbourhood, on the outskirts of the city. My encounters underscored a resourcefulness and determination, and real desire to bring human rights into every aspect of their lives.
Known as the ‘Louvre of the desert’, the museum provided a ‘shelter’ for art works that the then Soviet authorities deemed unacceptable. Many artists at the time had been imprisoned, exiled to labour camps or interned in mental asylums for much of their lives. This museum and its avant-garde artwork serve as a stark reminder of the pain and suffering endured by so many in this part of the world. It also pays homage to the importance of human achievement, resilience and preservation of local culture. Respect for cultural rights is an imperative for the growth of full and inclusive societies. Museums, such as the one I visited, have provided a crucial safe space for free thinking.
At the museum, I also engaged with some 600 students from around the country, and we shared views - in person and online - on range of issues, including disability rights, the digital divide, gender issues, the environment and climate change. Especially, the people of Karakalpakstan face the harsh reality of environmental neglect and deprivation. The drying up of the nearby Aral Sea, once the fourth biggest lake in the world, is a stark reminder of what is at stake globally.
I also had frank discussions with Government officials and civil society on the events of July 2022 in Nukus. I reiterated my Office’s call for a transparent and independent ‘after action’ review, including accountability for the loss of lives. I also raised the importance of fair trial standards in this context, as well as how inclusive dialogue can build trust, with lessons to be learned for the future.
As Uzbekistan maps out further reforms, my Office is prepared to support all endeavours to strengthen the social contract, based on inclusion, participation and protection. This is ultimately about a healthy civic space. Such undertakings, as I have seen in many country situations around the world, help build the way towards sustainable development, especially for the young.
In my meetings, I have encouraged everyone to look to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a document which marks its 75th anniversary this year, as an inspiration in particular to help build a path where human rights are central to their work and everyone’s lives.
The UDHR is a standard-setting achievement of humanity for all peoples and all nations, and is a global blueprint for international, national, and local laws and policies and a bedrock of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
We know that human rights, when applied, act as guardrails, as safeguards and as a blueprint for concrete action towards development, peace and security.
Let’s act in our own daily lives to uphold human rights, work together for a more sustainable, just, and prosperous world – for this generation and for those yet to come.
Katta rahmat (Thank you.)
For more information and media requests, please contact:
Jeremy Laurence – (travelling with the High Commissioner) [email protected]
Anvar Meliboev - Public Information Officer / [email protected]
Anthony Headley – +41 79 444 4557 / [email protected]