By Andrew Stroehlein and Steve Swerdlow, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Andrew Stroehlein is communications director at the International Crisis Group and Steve Swerdlow is Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are their own.
Recent Twitter conversations between the wannabe-jet-set daughter of Uzbekistan’s authoritarian ruler and critics of the country’s atrocious human rights record may have been unusual and amusing. They may have even brought a rare blip of international media attention to a reclusive regime the world normally seems happy to ignore.
What the tweets have not done, however, is improve anyone’s life in the miserably abusive state of Uzbekistan itself, where, among other things, torture in police custody is systematic, and over a million children and adults are subjected to forced labor in the cotton fields every year.
The fresh attention on Gulnara Karimova’s 140-character exchanges – in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Le Monde, Le Temps, PRI, and many others – is understandable. A tweet from the daughter of such an authoritarian ruler is indeed out of the ordinary, and that alone makes it newsworthy. But this is hardly the only “unusual” thing about her.
She is, in fact, a bit of a “weird news” magnet. Karimova is a diplomat who makes music videos, including a recent one with Russia’s newest citizen, Gérard Depardieu, and she even has her own perfume brand. She also has a line of jewelry, and she pops up at fashion shows to market and sell dresses she designs.
In fact, she seems to spend so much time promoting herself and her products that it is a wonder she has time to fulfill her official role as Uzbekistan’s permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva.
The Swiss city is home to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, two institutions that Uzbekistan tends to avoid. In particular, the Uzbek government has studiously ignored requests to visit by the Council’s “Special Procedures” mechanisms – independent experts who address thematic human rights issues around the world.
Uzbekistan is something of a repeat offender in this regard, having denied access to 11 special procedures in the last 11 years. This means they have refused to allow visits by the U.N.’s special rapporteurs on torture, on the situation of human rights defenders, on freedom of religion, on violence against women, on the independence of judges and lawyers, on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, on contemporary forms of slavery, on freedom of association and assembly and on cultural rights, as well as the working groups on arbitrary detention, and on enforced disappearances.
Given that Uzbekistan has little to be proud of in all these areas, it is perhaps not surprising that they prefer no such visitors and that Karimova spends her time cutting albums under her alter ego “Googoosha,” dancing with Depardieu, and promoting her perfume rather than cooperating with the U.N. human rights bodies in Geneva.
But no amount of perfume can hide the smell of Uzbekistan’s record, which for decades has been one of the most brutal in the world.
Human Rights Watch has been documenting this abusive record for years. It includes: the complete lack of political freedom and the imprisonment of civil society activists; systematic use of torture in police custody and in prisons; forced adult and child labor in the cotton fields; lack of accountability for the 2005 Andijan massacre, in which the government opened fire on mainly unarmed demonstrators, killing hundreds, and the show trials and persecution that followed; severe restrictions on freedom of expression; the denial of access for numerous international organizations and media outlets; and, of course, Uzbekistan’s continued failure to cooperate with the United Nations system of Special Procedures or any of the U.N.’s other monitoring bodies.
This is undoubtedly a long list, but the full accounting of this government’s crimes against its own people is far longer.
During her public Twitter conversation with one of us (Andrew), Karimova asked for details of these issues and promised to respond to them. We described some of the key horrors in a long open letter to her a month ago. The ambassador has so far not fulfilled her pledge to respond to these concerns, ignoring it as if it were a U.N. request.
Of course, regardless of the flash of an unusual media story, no one is fooled by a few tweets any more than they are by a new music video or a new clothing line unveiled at fashion shows.
We should not be distracted by Karimova’s jet-setting at all. The government she represents has a duty to end human rights abuses now, and she is in an official position that should be addressing these issues.
So, tweet that, Ambassador Karimova.