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Friday, February 23, 2024

Uzbek farmers cotton cooperative appeals for lifting of ban

The Uzbekistan government, which is accused of forced labor in cotton cultivation, won a court battle to close down a cotton farmers’ cooperative in the country, leaving the farmers at the mercy of exploiters and prompting human rights activists to raise their voices against the verdict.

Human Rights Watch and Uzbek Forum for Human Rights expressed concern about closing the Oltin Tola Boston cooperative, which violates internationally protected rights to freedom of association and organization.

Both organizations warned the international brands that had just started sourcing cotton from Uzbekistan after eliminating state-imposed forced labor might now have second thoughts on their decision. Permanently shutting down a farmers’ cooperative would be a severe blow to freedom of association and the right to organize and would serve as a significant setback to Uzbekistan’s agricultural reform agenda, said a Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Concerned human rights campaigners hope that the appeal court will overturn the ban as it will test Uzbekistan’s commitment to its international labor and human rights obligations.

A court in the Uzbek city of Nukus will hear the farmers’ appeal on 19th December. The collective was closed down last month after officials argued it was illegally competing with the ‘clusters’ – vertically integrated companies – that run Uzbekistan’s privatized cotton industry

More than 40 farmers in the Ellikalla district of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, an autonomous region in northwestern Uzbekistan, formed and registered the Oltin Tola Boston cooperative in February 2022.

They 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 the cotton cluster under government policy, one of the farmers told Uzbek Forum and Human Rights Watch.

On 1st November, an economic court ordered the cooperative to close down after agreeing that cooperatives could not operate in the same district as clusters.

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, an official of Uzbek Human Rights Forum said, asserting that unjustified interference in the cooperative’s operations is not justified, and the court order to close should be annulled.

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