The news that directors of New York’s Fashion Week have canceled a show by Gulnara Karimova came two months after her sister, Lola, lost her notorious libel case against a French magazine.

Gulnara and Lola are the daughters of Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

When last we left Lola, she was being embarrassed by courtroom testimony from victims of her father’s regime who agreed with Rue89 magazine’s assessment that her father is a dictator and that, ergo, she is the daughter of a dictator – the assertion that had led to the lawsuit.

Although the proceedings effectively put the Uzbek government in the dock, the court, appropriately, stuck to a narrower question and ruled in favor of the magazine. According to Rue89, the tribunal found that the magazine had been acting in its role as a critic of the regime and that its work had not amounted to a personal attack on Karimova-Tillayeva. had this quote from Augustin Scalbert, who wrote the article at issue: “This judgment reaffirms that one is allowed to write that Lola Karimova-Tillayeva is the daughter of a dictator, that her sister Gulnara is also the daughter of a dictator, and also that her father is a dictator.”

Did he mention that Karimov is a dictator?

The ruling is obviously good news for the magazine, but the court did not order Karimova-Tillayeva to pay damages to Rue89 for abusing the legal system. The judges reasoned that she could have “legitimately and in good faith misunderstood the extent of her rights.” So the magazine is left with the bill for thousands of euros in attorney and court costs. It has launched an appeal for help.

Which brings us to Gulnara and her fashion disaster. The cancellation came after human rights groups planned to protest the event, bringing attention to Uzbekistan’s practice of using child labor during the annual cotton harvest. I would have thought this would be a pretty straightforward story, but Joshua Foust, writing a blog for The Atlantic Monthly, tells critics to “be real for a moment.”

His argument seems to be:

1) Why this year and not last year? (Tim Newman, of the International Labor Rights Forum, told The New York Times, “his group simply hadn’t been aware of her planned appearance early enough. ‘This year, we were prepared,’ he said.”)

and 2) dealing with Uzbekistan is understandably complicated for the United States (I agree)

and 3) I’m not sure. Foust asks, “So why do we only seem to get outraged with Uzbek human rights abusers when they publicly associate with our fellow Westerners?” He says Karimova’s participation in the show should be a “non-story.”

I would say a few things to that. Most people, quite reasonably, don’t think about Central Asia all that much. As Foust says of the U.S. government, they have “bigger concerns to worry about.” So it’s pretty easy to understand how a high-profile event involving a bad guy can temporarily catch people’s attention and increase the volume of scorn and disdain directed at said bad guy.

And why on earth wouldn’t a human rights group, most of whose labors are ignored by the general public, use that occasion to draw attention to its cause? Foust can hardly accuse them of getting outraged by abusers only at certain times.

I’ve read Foust’s blog a few times and I’m struggling to figure out what he suggests people – the press, human rights organizations – do in situations like this. Perhaps nothing.

I do understand that diplomacy isn’t just about lecturing other governments, and I, too, think that sometimes the demands of human rights organizations are not realistic. But that doesn’t mean I want those protesters to stop. Surely the advocacy groups have their role to play, just as the quiet diplomacy of an ambassador does?

If Foust had made the case that human rights groups can actually set back the cause they espouse, that would be different. But the only example of “blowback” from publicly shaming the Uzbek government that he cites is when relations between Washington and Tashkent broke down after the Andijan massacre in 2005. Foust says the reaction to Andijan cost the United States access to the Uzbek government, “undermining the very human rights activism it hoped to advance.”

So Foust seems to be taking issue not only with the type of protests surrounding Fashion Week but also with the United States’ reaction after Uzbek government troops opened fire on hundreds of civilians.

What was that (public) reaction? A call for an international inquiry into Andijan and a meeting of a few senators with Uzbek opposition figures. It’s hard to imagine Washington doing any less under the circumstances.

In any event, the most concrete consequence for the United States was the loss of the use of an air base in Uzbekistan that had been used as a supply stop for troops in Afghanistan.

Here’s what an unnamed State Department official told The Washington Post at the time, referring to a group of refugees who had just been flown out of Uzbekistan by the UN:

“We all knew basically that if we really wanted to keep access to the base, the way to do it was to shut up about democracy and turn a blind eye to the refugees,” said the senior official, on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive diplomacy. “We could have saved the base if we had wanted.”

Sometimes even diplomats stop worrying about “blowback.”

And as for undermining human rights activism, I’d be curious to know how Tashkent would have approached human rights differently during that tense period if the United States had shut up. Would the UN High Commissioner for Refugees not have been kicked out? Would the OSCE mission not have been brought to heel? Would there not have been show trials of those accused of attempting to destabilize the country?

If we agree on one basic thing – that governments that abuse human rights are sometimes legitimate targets for public criticism – then I’m wondering under what circumstances, and by whom, Foust thinks that criticism is appropriate.

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Barbara Frye

Barbara Frye is Transitions Online’s managing editor. Email:

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