The human rights revolution you don’t know about but should.
For 12 years, the nation of Uzbekistan lived under a global boycott on the purchase of cotton harvested in their country. The weight of this boycott is only properly felt when we remember that cotton is the country’s second largest export and the crop for which it is the 6th largest producer globally.
What was the Uzbek Cotton Pledge?
Organized by the Cotton Campaign and the Responsible Sourcing Network in 2011, more than 330 global brands you’ll be sure to recognize, including Adidas, Gap, and H&M, signed the Uzbek Cotton Pledge.
This boycott successfully put pressure on the Uzbek government to reform labor practices to protect human rights. And yet, the boycott simultaneously closed their borders to an influx of capital that would have allowed for increased wages.
How could this be? The boycott stayed in place long after reforms had been made.
As we’ve noted prior, the most effective boycotts get stronger until they instigate change. Then, they loosen as they see positive results. For too long, even after the International Labor Organization found “the systematic and systemic use of child labor and forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry had come to an end” in 2020, the boycott punished a country that transformed its economy.
What’s the big deal?
What may seem like a small story about a far-off nation you would struggle to locate on a world map, should be front page news – here’s why. The end of forced labor in the former Soviet state represents one of the largest victories for human rights in recent memory.
The Uzbek annual fall cotton harvest, formerly known internationally as the world’s largest recruitment effort into forced labor, today, is free of all child and forced labor. Moreover, these efforts have been validated and recognized by the ILO, Human Rights Watch, and now, the Cotton Campaign.
Providing context for the scale of this success, Bennett Freeman, co-founder of the Cotton Campaign said, “This is one of the most significant victories anywhere in the world in the battle against forced labor in the twenty-first century.”
From operating under authoritarian leadership to pioneering a privatized, market-based economy – it’s hard to mention Uzbekistan without using the word “transformation.”
The implications of Uzbekistan’s new economy are global in nature and will be felt in the far corners of the world.
This remarkable achievement is worth the acknowledgment and celebration of Western nations. With few allies in the region and at a time when global politics remain shaky, finding partners in Central Asia would be wise. With neighbors giving into the pressure of authoritarian regimes, Uzbekistan continues to align itself with the causes of the West, a risk for which it should receive proper credit.
However, limiting this conversation to foreign affairs ignores the personal impact felt by every Uzbek person now living in freedom. Only when taking a zoomed in approach are we able to appreciate the results of this hard fought change.
Dilshoda Shodmonova of Tashkent shared, “When I was a child, we unfortunately missed a lot of school classes because of the cotton harvest. Today, thanks to the reforms, my own daughter can go to school uninterrupted and get her education.”
Julia Hughes, president of the U.S. Fashion Industry Association says, “now is the time for brands and retailers to take a fresh look at sourcing in Uzbekistan.”
We believe with confidence that now is the time to invest in this great nation. With a rich history stretching back to the ancient Silk Road, Uzbekistan is ready for a new era of hosting international trade and cultural exchange.
What lies before Uzbekistan is the opportunity to continue supporting workers’ rights. With this perspective they will see their economy grow as partnerships form across the global stage. The fight to advance human rights will continue as Uzbekistan blazes the trail forward for freedom in Central Asia.