By RFE/RL's Uzbek Service
September 20, 2013
BUKHARA, Uzbekistan -- A 6-year-old boy has died during cotton picking in Uzbekistan's southwestern province of Bukhara.
Provincial law enforcement officials told RFE/RL on September 19 that Amirbek Rakhmatov, who was sleeping in a trailer, was suffocated under a cotton load.
The incident occurred on September 15, one day before a university student stabbed four fellow students, killing one and injuring the other three, at a mandatory cotton-picking site in the province of Qashqadaryo.
Earlier this month, another college student died in a cotton field in Qashqadaryo Province after she touched a live electrical wire.
For years, rights watchdogs have accused the Uzbek authorities of forcing schoolchildren and university students to pick cotton, one of the country's biggest exports.
This is really awful -- the highest number of deaths related to the cotton harvest I've seen in years.
The very fact of the existence of child labour organized by the state is the root of these deaths -- it's the largest forced labour program in the world, state-controlled, and not due to "family farming" or anything like that.
Children are taken out of school and bused to fields; adults, too, removed from schools, hospitals, plants.
I'd like to think this was "getting worse before it gets better" as there is a lot of attention to the topic, but I fear there just isn't enough political will by the countries intertwined with this evil.
And I have to say Western human rights groups campaigning on this have been limp -- and just never tackle this like they mean business, the way they can do when they want to, oh, get attention to low wages at McDonalds or hate on Wal-Mart for its alleged practices.
Like all leftists and "progressives," they've preferred to focus on the Western companies buying the cotton and boycotting and shaming them, as part of their real target -- capitalism -- and their need to tie bad things to it to discredit it. That's why this never goes anywhere, as the groups involved tend not to take this issue for its own sake, but only as an add-on or to illustrate their overall anti-capitalist thesis. It just doesn't get their juices flowing as deep down, they think there is something vaguely "progressive" about Soviet socialism, collective farms, fixed prices, etc.
They also want to keep Uzbekistan in a pastoral socialist paradise of their imagination, and tend to reject outright any solution that would bring more mechanization or modern agribusiness to Uzbekistan and reduce the need for child labor.
Indeed, in Uzbekistan, the scourge of forced child and adult labour isn't about capitalism, it's about state socialism. Prices are fixed for farmers, they are forced to accept state-mandated quotas, and they have trouble getting loans to get the necessary equipment.
There isn't a free market where farmers themselves could get higher prices and then pay adult labour -- instead of a huge chunk of the male work force going abroad to work as labor migrants in Russia and other nearby countries. People either pay others to work for them in this mandated work program.
The human rights groups also have tended to pull their punches regarding the real way to get Uzbekistan to focus on this: relentless pressure through the International Labour Organisation.
Part of the problem is that Soros, the main human rights funder, and the major US and European groups like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International tend to be run by elites who in fact don't take up labour rights as a central part of their program, or even with much enthusiasm. And the groups that are labour unions or labour organizers are preoccupied with the US or all the way on the hard left with Occupy like SEUI.
While there has been some advocacy around Uzbekistan at the ILO, when the Uzbeks snowed everybody this year by pretending to go along half-way with some of the ILO demands, and allowed some sort of partial arrangement for a partial inspection, there were just too many groups, mainly funded and guided by the Soros Foundations (where I used to work on this cotton campaign) who were willing to compromise and who felt they had to praise some progress or look too hard-line.
It would have been better to reject this compromise and keep applying relentless pressure until the full demands were met and full recognition of the problem was made.
I can't rule out that this weak response from the NGOs is a function of too much proximity by too many to the Obama Administration which has repeatedly waived any sanctions against Uzbekistan under US law regarding forced labor and trafficking because it desperately needs Tashkent to get goods and equipment out of Afghanistan in the reverse traffic of the Northern Distribution Network. So US officials tell NGOs they'd be more effective if they didn't push too hard and worked for incremental change quietly instead.
But having this compromised half-way house inspection makes no sense to me as it is merely an avenue for manipulation -- like the "monitoring" of the harvest by UNICEF in secret that only enabled the regime to keep the system instant. No, only hard, relentless pressure and maximum publicity can work with this type of Soviet-style regime.
All that will happen is that the Uzbek regime will get to take a star turn as "cooperating" with the "international community" and pretend it is making progress instead of cynically manipulating international groups and screwing over its people.
This story in EurasiaNet takes awhile to explain that in fact this "inspection" isn't really progress -- given the ILO's real demands and the long-time efforts made by the Soros-funded Cotton Campaign to insist on these maximum standards in their advocacy with the US and the EU.
Just as Uzbekistan won't let the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visit prisons without their security agent minders to suppress independent examination and expression by prisoners, so Uzbekistan won't let the cotton harvest monitors from the ILO function freely without monitors, as EurasiaNet reports.
And that's why no human rights groups should have endorsed this and should have loudly and forcefully condemned it.
That's what you do when you're an NGO and not a government.
Yet, the Cotton Campaign (funded by the Soros Foundations, although EurasiaNet, also funded by the Soros Foundations doesn't tell you that) cautiously welcomed this rigged "monitoring" visit.
Human Rights Watch signed their cautious welcome, yet their Uzbek researcher still felt called upon to object to the conditions:
Campaigners are concerned that the observers will not gain unfettered access to the cotton fields. “It is essential that monitoring teams be comprised only of independent observers and not include any Uzbek officials,” Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia Researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch, told EurasiaNet.org.
Yet surely HRW knows that it's too late to insist on conditions when the mission is already deployed and the bad terms already set. While HRW received $100 million from the Soros Foundations to establish them as the leading human rights group in the world, they should have long ago told the Soros strategists that they were withdrawing from the Cotton Campaign because it was ineffective and wishy-washy when it needed to be strong.
The other thing that Western human rights groups won't do because they're just too damn busy bashing the West and its allies first is mount a concerted campaign on forced labour in Uzbekistan with the governments that really keep Uzbekistan in business in the cotton industry -- Russia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh. Western purchases at this point are negligible as most Western companies have pledged not to buy the Uzbek cotton (however, the honest ones not afraid of NGO brow-beating admit that they can't really control their supply when they buy from Asian countries that in turn bought from Uzbekistan.)
They feel like these governments aren't responsive to human rights campaigns, but they've never even tried and they've never tried to find counterparts inside Russia who might make common cause with them.
All of these ills are part of the deep, deep flaws the left has had for 50 years around anything to do with the Soviet Union and its successors and advocacy on universal human rights and I don't expect anything different.