(Moscow, March 24, 2015)- The arrest and expulsion from Uzbekistan of an international labor rights expert raises serious concerns about the government of Uzbekistan’s commitment to international human rights conventions and the feasibility of the World Bank’s agricultural programs in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan operates what is perhaps the world’s largest state-organized system of forced labor, forcibly mobilizing more than a million of the country’s citizens to pick cotton each fall. When the World Bank initiated new loans to Uzbekistan’s agriculture sector last year, the Bank conditioned the loans on the Uzbek government following through on promises not to use forced labor in the areas where the Bank-funded projects will operate. On March 19, the Uzbek government arrested, detained, deported and banned from the country Dr. Andre Mrost, an international labor rights consultant, whose firm, Just Solutions Network, Ltd., has bid on a contract to implement a feedback mechanism also called for under the terms of the World Bank loans.
“Three men in black entered the room, introducing themselves as officers of the Ministries of Justice and Labor and accompanied by three policemen. They demanded my passport and took me to the police station,” Dr. Mrost reported. “The Labor Ministry representative interrogated me first, then the police, and finally the national security service. They forced me to sign a document I could not read, in Uzbek, and then escorted me to airport passport control, where my passport was stamped with an order prohibiting my re-entry to the country.”
Dr. Mrost is a Russian national with significant experience in Uzbekistan. He was regional representative for the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mind and General Workers Unions (ICEM) and later the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), in the 1990s. For the ICEM, Dr. Mrost worked directly with workers of Uzbekistan to support the transformation of the country’s trade unions from Soviet-era transmitters of party policy to representative workers unions, a goal that remains yet unrealized. He also participated in the World Bank’s Extractive Industries Review, which included substantial civil society participation.
When he was detained last week, Dr. Mrost was meeting with representatives of Ezgulik, the only human rights NGO registered by the Uzbek authorities. Ezgulik, together with the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia and the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, have communicated concerns to the World Bank for years, including in a formal complaint that the Bank’s accountability mechanism decided not to investigate even while acknowledging the merits of the complaint that the Bank’s Rural Education Support Project II may have contributed to the government’s forced labor system. The Bank has committed to suspend its loans if there is child or forced labor in its project areas. Effective monitoring is therefore essential to establish whether the Bank’s criteria are being met.
“The Uzbek government’s action is shocking,” said Dr. Mrost. “If a meeting with a registered civil-society organization to discuss ILO conventions ratified by Uzbekistan is interpreted as an illegal act deserving deportation; if the Ministry of Labor, an essential partner in ILO and World Bank programs, leads such an interrogation, this all raises serious questions. Is the Uzbek government prepared to implement its recent agreements with the ILO? How feasible are the World Bank’s plans to ensure labor standards in its project areas, if the mere attempt to discuss labor standards is regarded as a deportable offense by the government?”
The deportation of Mr. Mrost underscores the Uzbek government’s repression of civil society and importance of the World Bank taking all necessary measures to ensure its projects do not contribute to rights abuses. As a first step, the Cotton Campaign urges the World Bank to continue to consider without prejudice Just Solutions Network’s bid for the contract to provide a feedback mechanism for its new loan projects in Uzbekistan. The Bank should also take special measures to prevent reprisals against community members, journalists, and independent organizations for monitoring or reporting on human rights violations in Bank project areas.
The Cotton Campaign is a global coalition of human rights, labor, investor and business organizations dedicated to ending forced labor in the cotton sector of Uzbekistan.