Last week, I responded to a blog post by Joshua Foust in the Atlantic that had criticized the ruckus over a fashion show to be hosted in New York by Gulnara Karimova, daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

In turn, Foust fired back. In a subsequent post, he wrote, “Protesting a fashion show is so inconsequential I’m baffled that smart people are trying to justify the enormous uproar they caused.”

He’s not the only one baffled. If the protest was so inconsequential, then why did Foust write a post that was so dismissive and caustic in its criticism? The essential points of the protest – to bring attention to the Uzbek government’s appalling use of child labor in its cotton harvest and to signal to Karimova, who has profited handsomely as the daughter of a despot, that the organizers were not willing to overlook her country’s human rights abuses – still seem perfectly legitimate to me.

Beyond that, though, the exchange has brought us to a key point: did it help or harm the human rights situation in Uzbekistan? It’s too early to know if it did any harm, but we have been here before, as when activists protested Karimova’s participation last year in a fundraiser for AIDS research, just as her country had imprisoned an anti-AIDS campaigner (showing the same obliviousness to irony that she showed this year in the fashion-cotton debacle). Maksim Popov received a seven-year sentence but was quietly freed in June. I won’t pretend there’s a cause and effect relationship between last year’s protest and the release, but I think it’s safe to say the kerfuffle didn’t backfire.

So did the fashion protest do any good? Foust is convinced that it didn’t. And he may be right.

I never expected the cancellation to have an effect, by itself, on the human rights situation. And, while I can’t speak for human rights groups, I’m guessing they didn’t either. It doesn’t work that way. Rather, it’s part of a steady drumbeat of pressure on the regime, not meant to replace smart diplomacy.

Besides, sometimes the pressure from advocates is there for an astute diplomat to exploit. As in this passage from a 2008 WikiLeaks cable:

“Assistant Secretary Boucher’s anticipated meeting with Karimov in early June in Tashkent will be an opportunity to remind the Uzbek leader once again that (a) NGO’s are not secret agents of the [U.S. government], (b) pressure for sanctions reflects genuine concern among both western publics and governments about [government of Uzbekistan] behavior, and (c) now is the time for greater openness on the part of the [government of Uzbekistan] in order to lend credibility to assertions … that human rights are being taken seriously.”

There are a few points I’d like to clear up as well.

In arguing that loud, public attacks on the record of the regime can be counterproductive (which is certainly true), he wrote, “as when the U.S. lost access to the Uzbek government in 2005” after it protested the Andijan massacre.

The facts of that event are subject to debate but what nearly everyone agrees on – and what I wrote – is that Uzbek government troops opened fire on hundreds of civilians. Not, in Foust’s mocking tone, that “mean old Karimov kill[ed] sweet innocent Uzbek peasants.”

Andijan is the example he used, so that’s the example I responded to. I cited a 2005 Washington Post article in which a high-ranking State Department official said the U.S. could have avoided being kicked off an airbase in Uzbekistan if it had not brought up the whole democracy thing. In other words, the U.S. government was willing to risk losing access to the base when faced with an event so egregious that it could not be the subject of diplomatic give and take.

But Foust says I’m wrong – that U.S. diplomats “actually believe the exact opposite” of the sentiments expressed in that article.

As evidence, he cites a WikiLeaks cable that was written three years later advocating a less confrontational approach. I’ve read that cable, too, and the context for it was different. Things don’t stand still for three years. It also suggests that there’s not uniformity of opinion about how to deal with such an egregious event even within the State Department. For what it’s worth, two years after the “softly, softly” cable was written, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was using tough talk with Karimov on the issue of human rights. “It’s time to deliver,” he said in a speech at a Tashkent university.

In response to my question, then, about what kind of public criticism Foust thinks is appropriate, he writes:

“[Activists would] be better off organizing a global boycott of Uzbek cotton, for one example. Going after the country’s finances is how you start pressuring change, not trying to embarrass one of Karimov’s shameless daughters.”

Could it be that he doesn’t know they’ve already done so?

If there are any diplomats who want to weigh in on this, please do. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

Barbara Frye

Barbara Frye is Transitions Online’s managing editor. Email: barbara.frye@tol.org

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