Uzbekistan has a real opportunity to cement its significant gains, turn away from its authoritarian past, and reclaim its place as a Central Asian leader.
By Knox Thames
Uzbekistan is undertaking a significant reform effort with President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s leadership. Very soon, Uzbekistan will have a unique opportunity to make lasting legal reforms on freedom of religion or belief. Hopefully, the country will not miss this opportunity to chart a new course and break conclusively from its authoritarian past.
While serving in a special envoy role at the U.S. State Department on religious minorities in the Middle East and South and Central Asia, I made several trips to the region to encourage reforms to open more space for freedom of religion or belief. Uzbekistan, the linchpin to Central Asia, was central to those efforts. The country has come a long way since the death of Islam Karimov. Working at a breakneck pace, the Mirziyoyev government ushered in a range of reforms, including on religious freedom.
The Uzbek government welcomed advice from the United States on reform, and we built a productive partnership. The government was especially interested in being removed from the State Department’s “Country of Particular Concern” list for severe religious freedom violators. From that dialogue, the government invited the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief to make a country visit in 2017, the first special mandate holder to visit in over a decade. Dr. Ahmed Shaheed issued an exhaustive report outlining 12 areas needing reform.
In a move unprecedented in my 20 years of work in this field, the Uzbek parliament passed a resolution committing to a roadmap of reforms based on Shaheed’s recommendations. In addition to promises, we observed an end to police raids on unregistered churches and the registration of new religious groups. In recognition of these steps, in 2018, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo removed Uzbekistan from the “Country of Particular Concern” list and moved it to the Special Watch List, shifting the country from the black list of worst violators to the grey list of countries closely monitored by the United States.
From my visits to Tashkent and multiple meetings in Washington, it is clear these reforms are at Mirziyoyev’s behest. And they continue. Recent actions now allow children to attend mosques with their parents and the government released some prisoners jailed for “religious” crimes. These are very welcomed actions.