As I have indicated both to you, Sir Nicholas, and to Mr. Thomas, I apologise for the fact that I shall conclude my remarks before the normal end time of the debate owing to the fact that I have, for want of a better parliamentary phrase, to leg it to the Chamber to answer the first question at Foreign Office questions.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having initiated the debate. The discussion is timely, given that there has been significant parliamentary and media interest in Uzbekistan, and I welcome the opportunity to put on the record the Government's position and policy.
Our relations with Uzbekistan are generally constructive—the characterisation of constructive engagement put forward by my noble Friend Baroness Symons in the other place is correct. However, despite that constructive relationship, we have serious concerns about human rights and the lack of economic and political reforms. Uzbekistan became an independent state only when the former Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, so the relationship is relatively young and is developing.
Uzbekistan is developing its relations with us through multilateral forums such as the European Union. In addition, it is a member of international financial institutions including the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which held its annual meeting in Uzbekistan in May 2003. There was some criticism of that move at the time, but the meeting, chaired by our then Secretary of State for International Development, my right hon. Friend Clare Short, provided an opportunity for a free and frank discussion between the international community, the Uzbek authorities and Uzbek civil society about the importance of economic and political openness. Before the meeting, the EBRD agreed a country strategy for Uzbekistan; it set seven key benchmarks for progress on economic, political and human rights reforms. The clear implication of the strategy is, rightly, to warn the Uzbek authorities that insufficient progress against the benchmarks could lead to the EBRD adopting a reduced lending strategy. We support that stance. The benchmarks are due to be reviewed by the EBRD in early 2004 and we are strongly encouraging the Uzbek authorities to make substantive progress against them.
The hon. Gentleman referred to our relationship with Uzbekistan and the war against terror. We are grateful for Uzbek support, particularly in relation to Afghanistan. Uzbekistan was also strongly supportive of the coalition efforts in Iraq. The important role that Uzbekistan has played in the war against terror is reflected in high-level exchanges of defence visits—most recently, that by the Uzbek Defence Minister in October. That provided an important opportunity for us to encourage further reform in the Uzbek armed forces and Uzbek participation in international peacekeeping operations. A memorandum of understanding that was signed will enable our armed forces to assist the Uzbeks with those goals. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would support that initiative.
Uzbekistan is a key player in a region of increasing strategic importance to the UK, so defence co-operation is important. However, while bilateral defence co-operation is effective, it is important to note that the Uzbek armed forces are not implicated in human rights violations.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned defence exports. Uzbekistan has not traditionally been a market for UK defence exporters. I have seen a number of press articles—I think that he quoted from them—accusing the Government of breaking their own arms export guidelines and selling weapons to Uzbekistan. It is necessary to answer that accusation by stating clearly that the UK has not sanctioned arms sales to Uzbekistan. The equipment covered in the export licences that have been granted consists of replacement components for civil passenger aircraft, goods for the oil and gas industry—those were sent for rental purposes only to companies operating in Uzbekistan—and goods to be used by a named UK exporter in Uzbekistan.
Relations with Uzbekistan are also developing well in a number of other areas—for example, education and culture. In May, we signed a memorandum of understanding on education at the opening of the British-Uzbek university in Tashkent. The British Council is also active in Uzbekistan: it has helped more than 200 Uzbek scholars to study in the UK. Through the Chevening scholarship programme, which is a flagship initiative for the Foreign Office, the Government have funded more than 40 Uzbek students to study in the UK.
Importantly, we are developing a dialogue on trade and economic issues. Uzbekistan is an attractive potential market and has substantial resources, including gas, oil, gold and silver. The previous high-level British visit to Uzbekistan, focusing on trade and investment, was undertaken in September by the lord mayor of London. As well as promoting the City of London's financial and business services, the lord mayor raised with Uzbek Ministers some challenges that face British businesses in doing business in Uzbekistan. In terms of deepening business-to-business contacts, which is a driver of necessary reform, that was an important initiative to undertake.
There has been progress. In October, the Uzbeks signed an agreement with the IMF that commits Uzbekistan to full current account currency convertibility. We welcome that, although for the move to bring benefits to the Uzbek economy the authorities need urgently to complement it with other essential economic reforms. We raise that issue in all our bilateral relations. A well managed and open economy is important not only for Uzbekistan and the prosperity of its people; it is equally important for its neighbours. Regional trade and transport co-operation need development. High tariffs and import duties, along with the unpredictable border closures that I mentioned, mean that Uzbek consumers are forced to pay higher prices for goods than they would otherwise have to. Those policies also adversely affect the well-being of Uzbekistan's smaller neighbours—the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan—yet creating the conditions that allow trade to flourish would benefit not only those neighbours but Uzbekistan itself. There is genuinely a mutual interest in these issues.
There has been progress on some issues of regional co-operation, notably security. An example is the establishment of the Shanghai co-operation council. Regional security is important in countering the threat posed by Islamic extremists in central Asia—a threat that we would do well not to underestimate.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has called for the overthrow of President Karimov's Government. In 2000, that movement made armed raids into Uzbekistan. IMU fighters received training and support from the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Although the IMU suffered serious losses during Operation Enduring Freedom, it is still active in central Asia. We support efforts to curtail the activities of the IMU, which we proscribed in October 2002. It is a threat to Uzbekistan's internal security and, through its links to al-Qaeda, to British interests and those of the wider international community.
It is important to point out that our concern about Islamic extremism in Uzbekistan and central Asia more generally does not mean that we turn a blind eye to human rights abuses or regard perceived threats to security as justification for imprisoning young men simply on religious grounds—far from it. On that point, I concur with the hon. Gentleman.
We want a prosperous and stable Uzbekistan, based on the rule of law and an open and democratic society, but Uzbekistan's respect for human rights has been poor. On that, I agree with some of the hon. Gentleman's comments. We acknowledge and support the small steps forward that the Uzbek Government have taken—for example, inviting the UN special rapporteur on torture to visit Uzbekistan. We now need to see the Uzbek authorities fully implementing his recommendations. It is welcome that the Uzbek criminal code has been amended to define torture and that a draft national action plan on torture is being drawn up. We shall look closely at the detail of that plan, and we hope to have open and constructive dialogue with the Uzbek authorities to ensure that it is implemented. I am also pleased that the Uzbek Government have granted access to prisons to western ambassadors and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, there have been many well-documented cases of human rights abuses in Uzbekistan. We have used every opportunity to press those with the Uzbek Government. Earlier this year, I went into detail about the concerns over human rights in Uzbekistan at the Foreign Affairs Committee when it discussed the Foreign Office's international human rights report. I made it clear that we had
"concerns about the deterioration of the human rights situation in Uzbekistan, particularly in relation to torture".
We shall continue to press those issues at every opportunity.
I now move to another issue to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Last week, staff at our embassy in Tashkent publicly expressed concern that a scheduled conference in Tashkent on the death penalty, which we were jointly sponsoring with Freedom House, was not allowed to go ahead because the non-governmental organisation that was organising it was unregistered. We will continue to push for the abolition of the death penalty and the registration of political parties and NGOs.
We are also monitoring the persecution of religious minorities in Uzbekistan. We understand that there are 7,000 religious and political prisoners—that is 7,000 too many. Of those prisoners, many are simply devout Muslims, whom we believe are often unfairly convicted of being extremists. We will continue to stress to the Uzbek Government the fact that falsely accusing citizens of extremist activity is likely to foster rather than discourage extremism.
It is worth taking this opportunity to put on the record the situation with our ambassador. There has been much comment and speculation in the press, and it has been suggested over the past few months that we do not support our ambassador to Tashkent, and that we have recalled him from that post because of pressure from our allies. Neither assertion is true. The ambassador is in the UK for private medical reasons. It would be inappropriate for me to comment further, other than to confirm that he remains our ambassador and to say that we endorse his comments about the human rights situation in Uzbekistan; I explicitly endorsed them at the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs.
I will now briefly deal with some questions raised by the hon. Gentleman. As regards the EU-Uzbek Co-operation Council, I am not yet aware of the date and place of that meeting. That has not been settled. Certainly, continuing European Union engagement depends on Uzbekistan's progress on human rights.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the death penalty conference. I have made clear our stance on the death penalty, both generally and with regard to Uzbekistan. We will continue to pursue that issue. He also discussed pressing the Uzbek authorities to publish statistics on the death penalty and burials. I will consider putting some of those points to them.
The subject of defence sales was also raised. I made it clear that the UK has not sanctioned arms sales to Uzbekistan. There have been indications to the contrary in some of our national newspapers, but it is important to make that point clear.
Both the Government and the EU continue to lobby for the abolition of the death penalty. With our support, the EU recently criticised six executions that took place in Uzbekistan. The EU, the UK and our embassy will continue to lobby for a moratorium on the death penalty.
To sum up, it is clear that Uzbekistan faces many difficult challenges. There is much work to do, but we should bear it in mind that it is only 12 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. We are engaging constructively with Uzbekistan, and will continue to press our human rights concerns and give what support we can to the Uzbek authorities. There are difficult concerns and challenges, and it is critically important that we remain engaged on them.