Anne Yasmine Rassam

Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s ruthless dictator, has been awarded a medal by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for “strengthening friendship and cooperation between nations, development of cultural and religious dialogue, and supporting cultural diversity.” This award went to the same man that brutally slaughtered several hundred unarmed Uzbeks in Andijon last year. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan has been ranked in 2006 by Freedom House as one of the most repressive countries in the world with one of the world’s worst human rights records.

Founded after the Second World War, UNESCO directive is to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among nations through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world.

One can only wonder what UNESCO, with such a mandate, was thinking when it awarded the prestigious gold Borobudur medal to Karimov for his contribution to preserving World Heritage sites. Perhaps they should have taken into consideration that his preservation of these sites comes at the expense of maintaining a totalitarian government through massive human rights violations and the use of slave labor, including children as young as six or seven, on state-owned cotton farms.

Could it be that UNESCO found that Karimov “developed cultural and religious dialogue” by arbitrarily jailing, controlling and interfering with the media, opposition parties and the work of Uzbek NGOs? Or perhaps, what UNESCO meant by “strengthening friendship and cooperation between nations” was the fallout between the United States and Uzbekistan when Uzbekistan ordered the U.S. to close all its military operations inside Uzbekistan within 180 days on July 30, 2005—only to subsequently accuse and kick out all U.S. related NGOs, including IREX, Freedom House and the International Republican Institute, on the basis that they were fueling political opposition? Or maybe by “cooperation by nations,” they meant the landmark decision in October 2005 by the European Union to partially suspend its Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Uzbekistan—the first time it has ever done so with any country.

The litany of human rights abuses in Uzbekistan goes on and on, especially on issues such as religious freedom and torture. Certainly UNESCO must have been aware of undeniable totalitarian nature of Karimov’s regime best known for torture and suppression of any political or civil dissent. But perhaps, given the recipients of prizes in the past, UNESCO simply doesn’t care.

Anne Yasmine Rassam

Anne Yasmine Rassam is vice president of foreign policy and international women's issues for the Independent Women’s Forum.

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