How Not to Publicly Shame a Dictator's Family

What does and doesn't work in human rights advocacy might not always be obvious
Gulnara Karimova -ap-body.jpg
Gulnara Karimova, center, seen at fashion week in Moscow / AP Images

Barbara Frye, of Transitions Online, did not like my criticism of the human rights fashionistas in New York who oppose Gulnara Karimova, daughter of the dictator of Uzbekistan, participating in Fashion Week:

I would say a few things to that. Most people, quite reasonably, don't think about Central Asia all that much. As Foust says of the U.S. government, they have "bigger concerns to worry about." So it's pretty easy to understand how a high-profile event involving a bad guy can temporarily catch people's attention and increase the volume of scorn and disdain directed at said bad guy.

And why on earth wouldn't a human rights group, most of whose labors are ignored by the general public, use that occasion to draw attention to its cause? Foust can hardly accuse them of getting outraged by abusers only at certain times.

For starters, and this is part of the "getting real" Ms. Frye did not much care for: making GooGooSha cancel a fashion show will have precisely zero effect on Uzbekistan's human rights situation. None. I would be shocked if Uzbeks even cared one way or another about it, even knowing full well she is broadly hated by normal people living there. Protesting a fashion show is so inconsequential I'm baffled that smart people are trying to justify the enormous uproar they caused.

Uzbekistan's participation in global sporting events like Football do not garner such garment-rending. Nor does its presence in various international organization cause consternation the way, say, South Africa under Apartheid did. Rather than focusing on how to exclude Uzbekistan from things it cares about -- by applying social, political, and financial pain to the Uzbek regime -- the human rights industry seems content to whine when one of the regime's members comes to America to show off some dresses she sewed.

The extremely low stakes of the New York Fashion Week outcry contrasts very poorly with the decibels and tone of the cries of horror thrown about Manhattan this week. Of all the many things Uzbekistan participates in, like the UN, the human rights people chose to protest a fashion show. And somehow, I'm wrong for telling them to grow up and to focus their efforts better. Go figure!

"I do understand that diplomacy isn't just about lecturing other governments," Ms. Frye writes. "But that doesn't mean I want those protesters to stop." This is assuming I said things I did not say. Protesting a fashion show is low stakes, meaningless, and ineffective. It is a waste of time. They'd be better off organizing a global boycott of Uzbek cotton, for one example. Going after the country's finances is how you start pressuring change, not trying to embarrass one of Karimov's shameless daughters.

But Ms. Frye seems to miss the point of this whole flap.

Here's what an unnamed State Department official told The Washington Post at the time [of the 2005 Andijon massacre], referring to a group of refugees who had just been flown out of Uzbekistan by the UN:

"We all knew basically that if we really wanted to keep access to the [K2 base used to supply the war in Afghanistan], the way to do it was to shut up about democracy and turn a blind eye to the refugees," said the senior official, on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive diplomacy. "We could have saved the base if we had wanted."

Sometimes even diplomats stop worrying about "blowback."

This is wrong. Wikileaks cables relating to the U.S. embassy in Uzbekistan show internal, textual evidence that U.S. diplomats in Tashkent, in fact, did not give up the base because they love democracy. They actually believe the exact opposite of that. In one 2008 cable, a diplomat wrote:

"The main message we need to get across to international human rights organizations like HRW is that having the EU or the United States implement sanctions against the Uzbek government at this point would go a long way to worsen, not improve, the human rights situation in Uzbekistan. If sanctions are imposed on the government, the government will respond by breaking off or severely restricting contact with the West again, and the release of political prisoners and other recent improvements will come to a screeching halt."

Even the Andijan incident, an unjustifiable massacre deserving of condemnation, is not as simple as mean old Karimov killing sweet innocent Uzbek peasants. Again, from the cables:

Turning to the Andijan events, the US diplomats conceded the Uzbek government's version of events had "some merit." Meanwhile, a comprehensive investigation by HRW found that the Andijan events had economic antecedents: the government's arbitrary arrests of local merchants precipitated an armed response by the traders' friends and relatives.

"There were armed extremists, they did seize a prison and government buildings, they did take hostages, and they did kill government troops," a US diplomatic cable said. "What the [Government of Uzbekistan's] version leaves out is the fact that security forces at the very least panicked and over-reacted badly, killing hundreds of people."

The embassy then proposed it might be better to offer Uzbek troops training "so they have more options than to shoot or run away should an Andijan-like scenario emerge again."

The reflexive desire to whine and complain and publicly shame the regime of Uzbekistan has been a long-standing topic of consternation forĀ  me and my coauthors at my blog, In the immediate aftermath of the Andijan massacre, founder Nathan Hamm raised a series of important questions that human rights activists should ask themselves when they accusingly point their very moral fingers at us policy analysts seeking how to materially change the human rights situation:

  • What should U.S. policy towards Uzbekistan have been from 01/01/92 to 5/12/05? Explain how that alternate policy would have either resulted in the liberalization of Uzbek government and society or how it would have prevented the massacre in Andijon.
  • What should the short-term U.S. response to Andijon be? What are the long-term implications of your answer?
  • If U.S. is to support democratization programs under the nose of a very hostile government, should it abandon the project or accomplish what it can?
  • Should the U.S. be willing to curtail its public, rhetorical commitment to democratization and liberalization in Uzbekistan for the sake of maintaining its ability to support NGOs and democratization projects?

These questions often float, unanswered, beneath the temporal moralism of people who think it's effective advocacy of human rights to shut down a fashion show. Asking a very basic question -- will this advocacy change things or even hurt things? -- might have led them in a different direction. Looking at the long-term consequences of one's advocacy is vitally important to actually achieving the goals one sets out to achieve. That's why the Tashkent embassy worries that blind advocacy for a nebulous human rights agenda might actually make the lives of normal Uzbeks worse off.

It's also why the fashionistas suddenly developing a sense of morals about the source of their fabrics can grate a bit. Of all the many horrible things the government of Uzbekistan has done to its people, it was fashion that raised their ire? Could that be any more condescending to the Uzbeks everyone says they care so much about?

I've read Foust's blog a few times and I'm struggling to figure out what he suggests people - the press, human rights organizations - do in situations like this. Perhaps nothing.

This is a rolling argument I've had with the human rights industry, especially when it comes to Uzbekistan. Simply because human rights groups are correct to identify Gulnara Karimova as a bad person, and her father as a brutal tyrant, doesn't mean that how they choose to react to and protest against her makes sense.