Calling Tashkent: Zooming in on human rights in Uzbekistan

At the end of our project with Uzbekistan’s parliament, the Oliy Majlis, GPG Associate and former clerk at the House of Commons Nick Walker reflects on the challenges and successes of those past two years.

Global Partners Governance Foundation (GPGF), the non-profit arm of GPG, has just come to the end of a two-year project funded by the British Embassy in Tashkent. We have been working with the Oliy Majlis, the national parliament of Uzbekistan, to support them in establishing a bicameral human rights committee.

GPGF prides itself on creating strong personal relationships with overseas partners so that, with our support, they can take the lead in work to fashion their objectives and solve their problems. With the Covid-19 pandemic preventing overseas travel and personal contacts for much of the last two years, GPGF and our Uzbek partners, like many others, had to adopt innovative virtual working methods. Zoom featured heavily (other virtual platforms are available). How did the project fare in these unusual circumstances? And what lessons can we learn?

First, a recap of the project and its timeline.

A delegation from the National Centre for Human Rights (NCHR) of Uzbekistan visited London in February 2020 for discussions on institutional and political mechanisms for strengthening protection of human rights. The delegation was led by Professor Akmal Saidov, who wears two weighty hats as Chair of the NCHR and First Deputy Speaker of the Legislative Council, the lower House of the Oliy Majlis. Since 2016, under the Presidency of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, succeeding the authoritarian rule of Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan has been striving to achieve political, social and economic reform.  A strong focus of these reforms has been efforts to improve human rights in the country in line with international best practice, including through the adoption of a National Human Rights Strategy and the election of the country to membership of the UN Human Rights Council.  With apologies for the cheesy pun, in recent years Uzbekistan has been “zooming in” on human rights as a political priority.

The Uzbek delegation left London impressed by the role and functions of the UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR), and put in place plans to set up a similar bicameral committee (or commission) composed of members of the Legislative Council and the Senate. Later in 2020 this commission was set up, chaired by Professor Saidov and boasting a distinguished membership, including chairs of other important Oliy Majlis committees. Sharing the bicameral concept of the UK’s JCHR, its remit was nevertheless different, and it rejoiced in the more prolix title “Parliamentary Commission for Compliance with the International Obligations of the Republic of Uzbekistan in the Field of Human Rights”.

Via Zoom, alongside an online resource platform with a range of written and audio-visual materials, GPGF Associates held 5 virtual sessions with the new Commission members on issues relevant to their remit. These sessions covered –

  • International human rights frameworks and obligations
  • Gender-sensitive approaches to human rights
  • Parliamentary human rights monitoring tools
  • Parliamentary responses to human rights issues arising from the Covid-19 pandemic
  • Effective outreach to citizens, with an emphasis on youth.

As the Commission got into its working stride, we held an online forum for its members with British and Uzbek human rights experts in March 2021 on the role of parliaments in upholding human rights.

Much of the project’s work in its second year focused on assisting the Commission to develop working methods to enable it to engage continuously with the Uzbek public, especially young people, in its work to strengthen human rights. This is in line with national priorities for developing and protecting youth rights – at Uzbekistan’s initiative a draft UN Convention on Youth Rights has been produced.

We held joint webinars with the Commission on engaging young people on human rights issues. Various Uzbek youth organisations took part, including the youth movement Yuksalish, the Youth Union of Uzbekistan, the Agency for Youth Affairs, and members of the Youth Parliament. Members and former members of UK youth parliaments also shared their experiences.

We produced a communication and outreach strategy document for the Oliy Majlis Commission to assist them in public engagement work in the future. As the concluding work of the project, we also provided the Commission with a good practice guide on parliamentary inquiries and citizen engagement. We hope this guide will prove useful to the Commission and to other Oliy Majlis commissions in their future work.

With pandemic restrictions easing, we were able to make two visits to Tashkent towards the end of the project. But most of our work with our Uzbek partners has been carried out online.  So how can we assess the outcome of this project? How have the unique circumstances affected it?

Online working has had some important advantages. Written and audiovisual resources and materials made available by GPGF for Commission members are easily accessible to them.

We have been able to include a wider range of international experts in online webinars than would have been possible at in-person conferences, even under non-pandemic conditions. This has added valuable perspectives, including from those with direct experience of the ways different parliaments and civil society groups relate to each other on human rights topics.

On the other hand, trust and understanding can best be created and maintained by personal contacts and conversations. This has been a crucial dynamic missing from this project, and it has brought home the extent to which discussions are generally more productive when personal relationships have been established.  The chat function on Zoom cannot ever replace informal face-to-face conversations. As we emerge from the pandemic more normal methods of working will resume – a good thing, though virtual engagement should still be used when appropriate.

We are grateful to the Uzbek Commission members for their enthusiastic engagement with the project under the trying conditions created by the pandemic, and we wish them success in their important work on monitoring Uzbekistan’s compliance with its human rights obligations.

A lot more information on the Uzbekistan project is available in other GPG blogs about the work:

November 2020: Uzbekistan – Memories and Hopes
April 2021: From Policy to Impact: Report on GPGF’s Forum
April 2021: Giving Young People a Voice: Youth Rights and Engagement in Uzbekistan
November 2021: Returning from Tashkent

GPGF is grateful to all our partners and supporters who have been involved in this programme leading to this publication. This includes the young people, leaders and Civil Society who have actively participated in various stages of the programme, both virtually and in-person, from Uzbekistan and the UK.
We are also grateful to the National Centre for Human Rights of the Republic of Uzbekistan (NCHR) for their support and facilitation of key meetings and events. We are indebted and thankful for the ongoing support from the Uzbekistan Embassy to the United Kingdom, and HE Ambassador Said Rustamov.
Lastly, we thank the British Embassy Tashkent, HMA Tim Torlot and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) for funding and enabling this programme to take place