U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov on Sunday, in a rare high-level U.S. encounter with a ruler often criticized for his human rights record.
The two held talks in the ancient city of Samarkand on the fringes of a diplomatic gathering of Kerry and his five Central Asian counterparts aimed at reassuring them of Washington's continued engagement in a region seen as exposed to extremism. Most of the five former Soviet republics have poor human rights records, and U.S. officials say Kerry, on his four-day trip, is urging Central Asian leaders to expand basic freedoms. But such issues are not likely to dominate his agenda.
"The United States does support the sovereignty and territorial integrity and independence of each country that's represented here," he said at the start of the foreign ministers' meeting. That message has taken on greater importance as Washington draws down its forces in Afghanistan, concerns mount about the threat to the region from Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and Russia, fresh from forays into Ukraine and Syria, reasserts its influence. It was Kerry's first meeting as secretary of state with Karimov, who has ruled Uzbekistan for a quarter of a century. Kerry said he wanted to talk with Karimov and Central Asian foreign ministers "about the human dimension, the issues of individuals and their participation in society".
A State Department press release said the two men had met to "discuss U.S.-Uzbekistan relations and to review opportunities to cooperate on a range of bilateral and regional issues." According to the statement, the two discussed global issues including combating extremism, regional security and stability, economic and commercial cooperation, regional connectivity, respect for human rights and areas for future cooperation. "Kerry thanked President Karimov for hosting the historic gathering of the C5+1, a new space for dialogue among the United States and Central Asian republics," the statement said.
At the foreign ministers' meeting, Kerry said: "We should have no doubt that progress in democratic governance leads to gains in every other field about which we're talking." Kerry said that apart from "the human dimension", the ministerial talks would focus on economic co-operation, regional security and stability, and the environment.
A joint communique after the meeting said the states taking part were committed to human rights. They also declared support for Afghanistan's development as an independent state and intention to counter cross-border threats such as terrorism. International human rights bodies list Karimov's government as among the world's most repressive. The latest State Department global report on human rights cites torture, forced labor in the Uzbek cotton fields and "endemic corruption". But Uzbekistan has also been a reliable strategic partner providing logistical support for the U.S.-led military campaign in neighboring Afghanistan. The renewed U.S. focus on Central Asia coincides with warnings from Russian officials about the danger of ISIS militants infiltrating the region from Afghanistan, accompanied by hints Moscow will respond by beefing up its military presence.
In his talks with Karimov, Kerry said he shared Central Asian countries' security concerns about Afghanistan and recognized the challenge they faced in countering extremists, especially ISIS and al-Qaeda.