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Joint Letter to the UN Security Council Regarding the Ongoing Crisis in Kyrgyzstan
Joint Letter to the UN Security Council Regarding the Ongoing Crisis in Kyrgyzstan
Today’s Uzbekistan and Manhattan’s Deadly Truck Attack
Today’s Uzbekistan and Manhattan’s Deadly Truck Attack

Joint Letter to the UN Security Council Regarding the Ongoing Crisis in Kyrgyzstan

Your Excellencies,

We urge the United Nations Security Council to take immediate steps to address the ongoing crisis in Kyrgyzstan. With a death toll likely to reach far higher than the official count of 200 and an estimated 400,000 displaced in Kyrgyzstan and across the border in Uzbekistan, the situation poses a significant threat to international peace and security. The Kyrgyz authorities have primary responsibility for halting the violence and resolving this crisis, but reports from the ground provide ample evidence that the government is unable to protect those in need, and Kyrgyz authorities have already acknowledged that they need substantial assistance.

In the past week, violence along ethnic lines has engulfed Osh and Jalal-Abad, resulting in killings, rapes, beatings, and widespread burning and looting of homes and other properties. There are a growing number of reports that Kyrgyz military and other security personnel not only failed to stop the violence, but in some cases may have been active participants.

In the last two days there have been fewer reports of violent attacks but some continue. Claims that the situation is stable are belied by the extremely tense standoff that remains. Ethnic Uzbeks who remain in Osh are in some cases trapped in isolated neighborhoods, living in fear behind barricades. The government itself recognizes that new violence could flare at any moment.  

The humanitarian situation is grave and increasingly urgent because Kyrgyz forces cannot be relied upon to provide the secure environment needed for humanitarian assistance to reach the population. Humanitarian organizations are having great difficulty accessing those needing assistance, and report incidents of theft and looting of aid.

Some 100,000 ethnic Uzbeks have sought refuge in Uzbekistan; the border is now closed. As many as 40,000 who fled the violence are without shelter, and given the destruction of hundreds of houses, many of the displaced have no homes to return to even should they feel safe to do so. Repatriation of the displaced will require much greater security and confidence within the displaced community.

International security assistance is urgently needed. An international stabilization mission of limited size could make a significant difference by securing the area for humanitarian relief, providing security for some of the displaced to return home, and creating space for reconciliation, confidence-building, and mediation programs to succeed. This mission would have a policing mandate and could be bolstered by military forces, particularly constabulary forces or gendarmes, if necessary.

Security Council Members should work without delay with regional organizations to ensure that such a mission is fielded as quickly as possible, with the endorsement of the Security Council and with specific terms of reference, clear rules of engagement, and a limited duration. Countries with capacity to engage quickly, in particular Russia, should be encouraged to contribute to the rapid deployment of such a mission.

A short-term security presence is crucial to establishing the humanitarian corridor requested by the United Nations and should lead the way for multilateral efforts to create a secure political environment for the eventual, but delayed, holding of a constitutional referendum and elections, and a longer-term effort to strengthen the rule of law and the protection of minorities, as well as to assist the government in security-sector reform.

Accountability for the recent violence, including on the part of state authorities, will be essential to securing long-term stability and reconciliation. The government should be encouraged to investigate crimes, ensure the protection of witnesses, and hold accountable those responsible for the violence. Given the extent and character of the violence, however, government efforts toward accountability should have an international component to be credible and effective. As an immediate step, the government should cooperate with OHCHR to begin investigations.

The instability in southern Kyrgyzstan cannot be wished away, and without a decisive international response there is considerable risk that widespread violence will reignite. It is possible that ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks may seek violent revenge for the past week of mayhem. Prolonged insecurity could provide an opening, for example, for political opponents who may seek to further weaken or overthrow the provisional government through violence against its perceived supporters. In the absence of an international mission to restore law and order, further such violence is likely to continue and could spill over to neighboring countries. Should conditions persist, widespread violence could cause a complete collapse of the state, with the attendant human rights, political, and security consequences for the region, including the risk of unilateral intervention by outside actors.

The threat to regional peace and security posed by the crisis in Kyrgyzstan is real and, despite the reduction in daily violence, still growing. The Security Council has an obligation to respond to these risks and should act immediately to work with the government, regional organizations and others to prevent further escalation of violence, including by authorizing international law enforcement and security assistance.

Best regards,

Louise Arbour, President and CEO, International Crisis Group
Kenneth Roth, Executive Director, Human Rights Watch

Contributors

Former President & CEO
Kenneth Roth
Executive Director, Human Rights Watch
A New Jersey police officer stands guard in front of the Omar Mosque in Paterson, U.S., on 1 November 2017. Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AFP

Today’s Uzbekistan and Manhattan’s Deadly Truck Attack

An immigrant from Central Asia has admitted to carrying out the 31 October truck attack in New York on behalf of the Islamic State. Sayfullo Saipov left his native Uzbekistan seven years ago and U.S. and Uzbek authorities say he was radicalised in the U.S.

What do we know about the Uzbek links of the New York attacker?

Sayfullo Saipov left Uzbekistan in 2010, aged 21 or 22, and entered the U.S. legally on a Diversity Visa Lottery Program. We cannot say with certainty yet when he was radicalised, but both U.S. and Uzbek authorities say it was in the U.S. Others, including Saipov’s Uzbek wife and another Uzbek man, are being questioned by the FBI. It is not clear whether Saipov had any direct contact with the Islamic State (ISIS) or other Central Asians linked to the group, but ISIS, after some delay, claimed responsibility for the attack on 3 November. There is no evidence of any connection to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a jihadist group that has operated for much of the last fifteen years in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

What do we know about Saipov’s relationship with the broader Uzbek migrant community in the U.S.?

Mirrakhmat Muminov, an ethnic Uzbek religious activist, blogger and human rights activist based in Ohio, told Crisis Group on 1 November that he met Saipov, who is from the Uzbek capital Tashkent, in 2011. Saipov married a fellow Uzbek and had children, but Muminov described him as “a very aggressive, depressive and unstable guy … he couldn’t find a job for a long time, he couldn’t go back to Uzbekistan to see his parents”. Like the U.S. and Uzbek authorities, Muminov argues that whatever motivated him to perpetrate the attacks in New York happened while he was in the U.S. He said that communities of Uzbeks (in 2015 the official number of Uzbek migrants in the U.S. was 55,000, though the real number is widely thought to be much higher) and those of other Central Asians now fear they will become targets of extra scrutiny.

What is the background to ISIS recruitment among Central Asians?

In 2015, Crisis Group estimated that there are between 2,000 and 4,000 Central Asians fighting in Syria and Iraq. ISIS – unlike, for example, al-Qaeda – has been able to create compelling recruitment material and propaganda for the post-Soviet space in not only Russian but local languages. It has attracted a broad range of people from Central Asia from teenage girls following their boyfriends who were recruited in Russia to one high-ranking U.S. trained Tajik security official.

ISIS has had some success in attracting Uzbek citizens and ethnic Uzbeks from neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. Uzbek citizens form the largest contingent of Central Asians in Iraq and Syria (though Uzbekistan also has the largest population in the region). Saipov joins two other Uzbek citizens who are known to be responsible for ISIS-linked terror attacks. Abdulgadir Masharipov carried out the New Year’s Eve attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul and Rakhat Akilov was responsible for the truck attack in Stockholm in April 2017. Turkish authorities also say citizens of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan were among those responsible for the attack on Istanbul airport in June 2016, and an ethnic Uzbek originally from Kyrgyzstan carried out an attack on the St. Petersburg metro in April 2017. An Uzbek in the U.S. was found guilty of supporting ISIS in October 2017. In the case of Akilov, the Uzbek government says they warned European security services about him.

Radicalisation, however, does not always happen in the country of origin. Saipov, like the Boston Marathon bombers in 2013 (who were ethnic Chechens originally from Kyrgyzstan), appears to have been radicalised in the U.S. This suggests that any well-tailored policy response should focus on a variety of factors that led to this outcome, among them in all likelihood the wide availability of ISIS-inspired materials on the internet. Addressing the accessibility of such materials in a manner that respects the right to free expression has been and will remain a significant challenge for Western governments.

What is likely to happen next in the Saipov case, and what could be done to prevent a recurrence?

The Uzbek authorities say they will cooperate with the U.S. and that they are investigating Saipov’s history. This likely will involve rounding up family and acquaintances still in Uzbekistan for questioning. Although the new Uzbek president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, appears committed to reform, Uzbek security services are notorious for their use of torture.

With respect to criminal process inside the U.S., in deciding to try Saipov through civilian rather than military courts, the U.S. government chose a more effective and more legitimate forum.

Those in the U.S. who support restricting immigration in general already are seizing on the fact that Saipov came into the country on a so-called “diversity visa” in order to reinforce their campaign to limit both legal and illegal immigration. That he appears to have been radicalised in the U.S. is unlikely to be persuasive in pushing back against this trend. Yet to restrict immigration in arbitrary fashion would be to misdiagnose the problem, turning foreigners into scapegoats. In particular, Crisis Group in the past has called into question the U.S. administration’s policy of preventing citizens from certain countries travelling to the U.S.

Are there any implications in terms of U.S. policy toward Uzbekistan?

U.S. interests in Uzbekistan currently chiefly are linked to Afghanistan, with which Uzbekistan shares a heavily guarded 137km long border. The country has also been the recipient of U.S. military and technical aid.

It is not clear that the attack in and of itself will lead to refocused U.S. attention on Uzbekistan or Central Asia more broadly, since for now nothing links the attacks to that region beyond Saipov’s nationality. That said, and independently of the attack, there is good reason for the U.S. to pay more attention to the need for political reform and socio-economic development as much as counter-terrorism. An opportunity exists. Uzbekistan has been opening up under President Mirziyoyev, who took office in September 2017 after the death of President Islam Karimov, whose rule was characterised by violent political and religious repression. The country appears to be seeking to embark on important reforms, although that inevitably will take time and require international support.

Some early signs are encouraging. This year the government removed some 16,000 people from a long-standing list of 17,000 alleged extremists, a categorisation that previously had served as a convenient way to target Karimov’s political opponents. Mirziyoyev also has pledged support for Uzbek migrants, typically to Russia, in contrast to his predecessor’s description of them as “lazy”.

Finally, Mirziyoyev has broken with Uzbekistan’s formerly isolationist foreign policy and is seeking to mend relations with Central Asian neighbours, including Turkey as well as troubled states such as Tajikistan. This potentially could present an opportunity to resolve deep-seated disagreements among regional states, including competition over water resources and border demarcation.