(Berlin, December 15, 2023) – A court in Nukus, Uzbekistan will consider an appeal on December 19, 2023, from a farmers’ cooperative that was closed in November under a court order, Human Rights Watch and Uzbek Forum for Human Rights said today. Closing the cooperative violated the internationally protected rights to freedom of association and to organize.
“The right of farmers in Uzbekistan to form and function as cooperatives is protected in national legislation and in international labor and human rights law,” said Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights. “There can be no justification for this grave and unjustified interference in the cooperative’s operations, and the order to close it should be annulled.”
Over 40 farmers in the Ellikalla district of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, an autonomous region in northwestern Uzbekistan, organized into the Oltin Tola Boston cooperative and registered with Uzbekistan’s Justice Ministry in February 2022. The farmers created the cooperative to have greater control over the terms of sale of their raw cotton, rather than being obligated to sell their crops to a specific private-sector cotton-textile cluster in accordance with government policy, one of the cooperative’s farmers told Uzbek Forum and Human Rights Watch.
But on September 8, the Karakalpakstan Agro-Industrial Complex Control Inspectorate, under Uzbekistan’s Agriculture Department, filed a lawsuit against the cooperative to terminate its activities. The inspectorate alleged that under Presidential Decree 4633, farmers’ cooperatives cannot exist in districts where clusters are already operating, and that the cooperative had failed to register their raw cotton sales contracts with the government.
On November 1, an economic court ordered the cooperative to cease its operations. The court agreed that cooperatives are not allowed to operate in the same district as clusters and, based on an August 30 letter to the district governor from Ellikkala district’s Emergencies Department, ruled that the cooperative’s storage facility did not meet required standards for storing cotton. The court acknowledged that the cooperative had in fact registered their cotton sales with the Agriculture Department.
However, the court apparently ignored a protocol signed on September 26 between the Emergencies Department and the cooperative, which detailed the cooperative’s actions to address the deficiencies and outlined a timeline for completion of outstanding issues by November, the cooperative member said.
Shortly after the court order on November 9, the Emergencies Department confirmed in a letter to the cooperative that it had addressed all issues and that the storage facility met the requirements.
Neither Presidential Decree 4633 nor the Law on Cooperation explicitly prohibits cooperatives from operating alongside clusters in the same district, while the law on cooperation states that “a cooperative has the right to engage in any type of activity except that which is prohibited by legislative acts of the Republic of Uzbekistan.”
In a video interview about the closure, another cooperative member said that “the law on cooperation states farmers can freely associate to grow agricultural products. Our goal is to produce cotton [and] create jobs.”
The International Labor Organization’s Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention, ratified by Uzbekistan in December 2016, guarantees farmers in Uzbekistan the right to organize cooperatives without undue interference by the authorities, Uzbek Forum and Human Rights Watch said. These rights are also protected under Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Uzbekistan is party.
While the Oltin Tola Boston cooperative did not face any obstacles to registration, the authorities appear to have pressed individual farmers to leave the cooperative. By the end of 2022, only 17 out of 44 farmers remained as members, the first farmer said.
Uzbek authorities began more overt harassment of the cooperative after it succeeded in processing and selling the farmers’ 2023 cotton harvest. On August 24, the district governor’s office sent a letter to the Ellikkala district prosecutor’s office asking it to assess the legality of the cooperative’s operations. The district governor’s office also sent letters of inquiry to the Karakalpakstan Justice Ministry and Agricultural Inspectorate, requesting each to “determine whether it is legal for Oltin Tola Boston cooperative to engage in the cultivation, storage, and processing of raw cotton.”
Uzbekistan has made notable progress in eradicating systemic forced labor in cotton production in recent years, but unlawfully closing a farmers’ association would be a serious setback to the reforms, Uzbek Forum and Human Rights Watch said.
Uzbekistan’s partners should express urgent concern about this attempt by Uzbek authorities to close a lawful farmers’ cooperative and urge the Uzbek government to uphold farmers’ rights to freedom of association and to organize.
“Permanently shutting down a farmers’ cooperative would be a serious blow to freedom of association and the right to organize and would serve as a major setback to Uzbekistan’s agricultural reform agenda,” said Mihra Rittmann, senior Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “All eyes will be on the upcoming appeals hearing as a test of Uzbekistan’s commitment to its international labor and human rights obligations.”