Stung by Amnesty International

By Joshua Foust

It shouldn't take a high profile cancellation by Sting to draw attention to the human rights abuses happening in Central Asia

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Sting, everyone's favorite somnambulant acoustic pop star, has developed a somewhat checkered experience in Central Asia. In 2009, Gulnara Karimova--herself a fledgling pop singer under the name GooGooSha and daughter of Uzbek president-for-life Islom Karimov--paid him $1.6 million to perform at a government-sponsored arts festival in Tashkent. Tickets to the concert were priced above $1,000 in the impoverished Central Asian country, and Sting later claimed, falsely, that the concert was co-sponsored by UNICEF.

The clear hypocrisy of speaking for a human rights organization while performing under contract for a human rights abuser was, apparently not an issue for Sting.

One reason for the controversy is Sting's position as a spokesman for Amnesty International, contrasted with Uzbekistan's position as one of the world's worst human rights abusers. The clear hypocrisy of speaking for a human rights organization while performing under contract for a human rights abuser was, apparently not an issue for Sting, who declared that "cultural boycotts are not only pointless gestures, they are counter-productive."

Sting was onto something. What outraged the British press in particular seemed to be not Uzbekistan's galling record of human rights abuses, but that one of their do-gooder pop stars might have done something embarrassing. Interestingly, that outrage suddenly prompted this same British press to actually cover the many problems looming over Central Asia, but it was in the service of taking Sting down a notch, rather than actually reporting on the region.

Of course, now Sting has done it again:

Sting has thrown his support behind striking Kazakh oil and gas workers, cancelling a gig that was to take place on Monday night in the country's capital of Astana. At the last minute, the singer announced he would not cross a "virtual picket line" to perform at the government's Astana Day festival.

International Labor solidarity notwithstanding, this is probably now a teaching moment for the world media in Central Asia. The last six weeks have seen a growing wave of protests in Kazakhstan's western provinces. Ever since the Arab Spring, the tiniest hint of protest in the countries of the former Soviet Union have prompted comparisons to Tahrir Square--regardless of whether the comparison makes the slightest bit of sense or not. Since Sting has expressed solidarity with the protesting Kazakh oil workers, maybe now the conversation can shift a bit, just like when he was mocked for performing in Uzbekistan eighteen months ago.

It won't be easy, and part of that is Sting's fault. Rather than exercising any judgment about his tour dates, the singer relied on Amnesty International to tell him that Kazakhstan might not be an appropriate place for a birthday concert for president-for-life Nursultan Nazarbayev--under their advice he also canceled a tour date in Minsk, Belarus, for similar reasons in May. But people aren't talking about Belarus, they're talking about Kazakhstan--probably because the name sounds a bit more foreign, and probably because it sounds almost like Uzbekistan (and Uzbeks are scary).

The somewhat uncomfortable truth of the matter is, Kazakhstan is the least abusive country in Central Asia (though that isn't saying much). Sting making a high-profile cancellation for the striking oil workers is fine as far as it goes, but completely misses the point of even complaining about human rights abuses in the first place: oil workers shouldn't have to protest in front of the media to draw attention to civil rights issues in the country.

Groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the UNHCR have been drawing attention to this region's human rights abuses since the 1990s. They've recorded far worse than low wages and a jailed lawyer--violently intimidated journalists, illegal deportation, and far more abusive labor practices. While the oil workers certainly deserve support, it's more than a bit silly that a union strike draws such global ire when the more day-to-day oppression of the country goes unnoticed and unremarked upon by the same emoting op-ed pages that have giggled at Sting's Central Asian misadventures.

The practice of human rights in Central Asia, including how to improve them, requires more than an aging pop singer juggling around a concert or two. It takes consistent international pressure, shame, even ostracism to get even minute changes in posture. President Nazarbayev will treat Sting's snub like any dictator would treat an artist's snub: by ignoring it and continuing on. And the opinion writers who gleefully guffaw at Sting's continuing issues with telling right from wrong will do the same--ignoring everything else that's happening in the region, all the abuse and misery and promise and hope--and not return until some other celebrity draws our attention back once more.

Image: Andy Clark/Reuters

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/07/stung-by-amnesty-international/241432/