U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is visiting Uzbekistan today as part of her short Central Asian tour, and her actions there will be watched probably more closely than anywhere else on her trip. The U.S. is walking a tightrope in Uzbekistan, relying on the country heavily for its role as a transport hub for military cargo to Afghanistan but wary of embracing a government with one of the worst human rights records on the planet.
Human Rights Watch, in a statement calling on Clinton to make human rights a prominent part of the agenda in Tashkent, suggests that government officials are personally profiting from traffic on the Northern Distribution Network, and that the NDN is causing the U.S. to send a mixed message in Uzbekistan:
Although the US maintains a congressionally-mandated visa ban against Uzbek officials linked to serious human rights abuses, it uses routes through Uzbekistan as part of the Northern Distribution Network to supply forces in Afghanistan. US military contracts with Uzbeks as part of this supply chain are potentially as lucrative for persons close to the Uzbek government as direct US aid would be. Despite the State Department's re-designation of Uzbekistan in January 2009 as a "Country of Particular Concern" for systematic violations of religious freedom, the US government retains a waiver on the sanctions outlined in the designation, raising serious concerns that the US is sending a mixed message on the importance of human rights improvements in Uzbekistan.
"Uzbekistan's importance as a strategic partner should not lessen the US government's willingness to be outspoken about the lack of meaningful progress by Tashkent on longstanding human rights concerns," Denber said. "Clinton needs to underscore that human rights don't take a back seat to strategic interests but are a core component of the US-Uzbekistan relationship."
Thus far (as far as I know) none of the released WikiLeaks cables have come from Tashkent, and those are the ones I'm looking most forward to, for the light they'll shed on exactly this issue.