This week, David Cameron has announced a visit to Kazakhstan; the first ever visit by a British leader to Central Asia. On the agenda will be security issues, the pull-out from Afghanistan, and oil and gas. Though the human rights climate in Kazakhstan has seriously deteriorated in the last two years, it's not as bad as some neighbouring countries. Last week, Baroness Warsi, the minister responsible for both human rights and Central Asia at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, travelled to some of these, more rights-abusing neighbours. Touring Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, Warsi tweeted her trip avidly and often included #humanrights.
Yet it seems apparent from her tweets, and indeed the UK's policy towards this region over the last few years, that human rights are secondary to the primary focus of trade and wider geo-strategic interests.
Warsi tweets nine times about the massive increase of trade with Turkmenistan, its wonderful marble, its natural gas reserves and opportunities for British business before she seems to remember her other 'hat' and adds human rights into the mix. Turkmenistan is a country that the Foreign Office deems a 'country of concern' in its 2013 Human Rights Report. 'There is a broad gap between the government's rhetoric on democracy and human rights and its practice', the report states.
Each time Turkmenistan's rights record comes up for international scrutiny, such as before the UN Human Rights Committee in March 2012 and under the Universal Periodic Review in April 2013, the world is reminded of just how closed and repressive the country is, with arbitrary detention of critics, torture and inhuman treatment, and draconian restrictions on freedom of assembly and association topping the long list of concerns. The media and internet are tightly controlled, and corruption and lack of transparency are other serious problems. Yet Warsi and the FCO send a message that rights are less important than trade.
Next stop for the minister was Uzbekistan, a country whose human rights record is atrocious and where torture is rampant, and another 'country of concern' for the UK. Here #humanrights appeared to be more of a priority alongside commercial opportunities. Yet it's clear that the biggest priority of all with regards to Uzbekistan is securing the safe passage of UK military equipment from Afghanistan back through Uzbek territory.
In February the UK agreed to gift £450,000 of military kit to the country to secure such passage. Defence minister Philip Hammond said he was confident the kit would not be used for 'internal repression'. But even if this supposed confidence is not misguided, what message does it send that a government which just a few years ago was under strict arms embargoes from the EU and US on human rights grounds (for massacring hundreds of its own citizens in Andijan in 2005) is now enjoying military gifts from the UK?
In Kyrgyzstan, Baroness Warsi tweeted in a little more detail about human rights. While the military drawdown clearly headed the agenda, religious and media freedom were both cited as 'needing work'. Too right. It remains illegal to insult a public official and some journalists face violence for their work; investigative journalist and rights defender Azimjon Askarov is serving a life sentence - despite his uninvestigated allegations of torture - after a fundamentally flawed judicial process on dubious charges. The justice process following ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010 has been seriously flawed, with ethnic Uzbeks disproportionately targeted in investigations, and widespread arbitrary arrests and ill-treatment, including torture, for which there has been virtual impunity. Violence and discrimination against women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people also remains a serious concern.
Of course being limited to 140 characters hardly allows for detailed analysis. But the apparent flippant use of #humanrights, somehow rings hollow. A footnote that makes the UK feel a little better about itself, but with human rights concerns not properly pressed. The unfortunate message to rights abusing governments in Central Asia is that what the UK really wants is business, and if you can offer that, we won't give you too hard a time on human rights. Other than a hashtag.