Human Rights Watch (HRW) is urging Central Asian leaders who are seeking greater regional cooperation and international investment in an effort to boost economic growth to place human rights at the top of their agenda.

HRW made the call in a statement released on January 17 as it published its annual review of human rights practices around the globe.

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, the New York-based rights watchdog reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries.

Last year, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev “initiated greater cross-border cooperation and took notable steps to improve the domestic human rights situation,” HRW said, while “blatant attacks on media and speech freedoms became less frequent” in neighboring Kyrgyzstan under President Sooronbai Jeenbekov.

However, the group said “negative trends intensified” in other Central countries, with Tajikistan and Turkmenistan “continuing a slide into ever more repressive policies.”

The statement notes that there was also “no meaningful human rights improvements” in Kazakhstan, where the authorities “clamped down heavily on free speech, assembly, and association.”  

The , in particular, says Tajikistan’s human rights record continues to deteriorate amid an ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression and association, peaceful political opposition, as well as the targeting of independent lawyers and journalists.  The government reportedly continues to block various websites with information critical of the government, subject human rights groups to harassment, including a law requiring nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to register all sources of funding from foreign sources, restricts media freedoms, and has enforced serious restrictions on religious practice.  Domestic violence against women also continues to be a serious problem, despite the adoption of a law on domestic violence in 2013 that provided some human rights protections.

“To improve the lives of Central Asia’s 105 million residents, human rights improvements need to go hand-in-hand with economic growth and regional cooperation,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Central Asia’s leadership should start by allowing critical voices to be heard and ending the worst abuses such as politically motivated imprisonment and torture.”

Williamson called on the United States, European Union, and other partners to make it clear to the Central Asian leaders that “any reform agenda without human rights improvements will certainly fall short.”

“Human rights and greater accountability should be at the heart of any growth or investment strategies to truly respond to the aspirations of citizens in Central Asia,” he added.