About Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights
Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF) is a Berlin-based NGO dedicated to protecting human rights and strengthening and promoting civil society in Uzbekistan. UGF has special expertise on labor rights and regularly conducts research in the field of business and human rights.
Since 2009, UGF has worked with a network of local human rights activists in Uzbekistan, often working undercover for fear of reprisals by the Uzbek authorities, to expose human rights violations. UGF’s network has conducted extensive monitoring of forced and child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton and agriculture sectors and has compiled the most comprehensive archive of labor rights violations in the Central Asian region.
UGF is the only NGO working with a network of local monitors inside the country who have intimate knowledge of their communities and the social and political landscape of Uzbekistan. UGF was founded and is led by the award-winning human rights activist, Umida Niyazova, who was forced to flee her native Uzbekistan in 2008 because of her human rights work.
UGF has published dozens of reports, articles, videos, caricatures and podcasts which have informed policy makers, including Uzbek government officials, investors such as the World Bank, international human rights bodies including the UN, and perhaps most importantly, Uzbek civil society itself. UGF’s sister website, Eltuz, which publishes in Uzbek and uses popular caricatures and social media to circumvent state censorship, has many thousands of followers and has been instrumental in facilitating and developing public debate on human rights issues in Uzbekistan.
UGF collaborates with other human rights organizations and has published joint reports with Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Solidarity Center, maximizing visibility and leverage in the international arena. UGF is a frontline partner of the Cotton Campaign, a global coalition of NGOs, trade unions, retailers and investors dedicated to eradicating child and forced labor in the cotton industry. The Cotton Campaign’s strategy and messaging is informed by UGF’s reports, based on witness testimonies, photographic and audio materials gathered by our courageous and skilled monitors. In 2016, UGF’s monitors received the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) Defenders Award for their outstanding work.
Human Rights Reporting
UGF submits reports to international human rights mechanisms on systemic human rights violations that are outside the focus of international organizations. In the course of its work, UGF has submitted more than 20 reports on forced labor in the silk and cotton sectors, freedom of movement, corruption, surveillance by Mahalla Committees and torture. In addition, UGF has published dozens of articles and reports on human rights issues which are disseminated in regional and international media outlets.
Our advocacy campaigns have led to direct changes in policy which have benefitted victims of human rights abuses. We work for change and this is how we achieve it:
As a frontline member of the Cotton Campaign, UGF is part of an international campaign to pressure companies to desist from sourcing cotton from Uzbekistan produced using child and forced labor. Over 300 companies and brands, including Zara, H&M, Walmart and GAP, have subsequently signed a pledge not to source Uzbek cotton.
Abolishing Child Labor
UGF has been conducting research since 2010, when state-organized child labor in the cotton sector in Uzbekistan was on a massive scale, affecting approximately one million children each year. Despite compelling witness testimonies and well-documented evidence, the government of Uzbekistan denied the very existence of child labor which deprived children of their education and exposed them to hazardous working conditions.
In 2009, UGF launched a petition and collected the signatures of 100 Uzbek activists living in Uzbekistan and abroad calling for a boycott of Uzbek cotton. This was the beginning of sustained pressure on the Uzbek authorities to end child labor in the cotton sector. Following a global outreach campaign led by the Cotton Campaign and with the engagement of the international community, the Uzbek government finally ratified ILO conventions on prohibiting child labor and stopped sending schoolchildren to pick cotton in 2014.
International Financial Institutions
When UGF’s monitors identified the use of child and forced labor in project areas financed by the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), we stepped up our efforts to ensure that investors upheld their international human rights obligations.
In 2013, UGF filed a formal complaint with the World Bank Inspection Panel together with the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia and “Ezgulik”, the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, requesting an investigation of the World Bank’s Rural Enterprise Support Project Phase II (RESP-II). The basis of the complaint was that the Bank had failed to prevent World Bank funds from contributing to government orchestrated forced labor.
In 2016, UGF filed joint complaints with ILRF and HRW with the World Bank and the IFC, which led to third party monitoring of child and forced labor by civil society actors and the International Labor Organization. In the summer of 2017, UGF launched a petition calling for an end to the mobilization of students to pick cotton. At the end of September 2017, about 200,000 students sent to pick cotton at the beginning of the month were returned from the fields. No students have since been forced to pick cotton, allowing young people to focus on their studies.
After UGF published a joint report with HRW, linking the Bank’s projects in Uzbekistan to forced labor, the Bank was under intense pressure to raise the issue with President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Following a meeting with then World Bank chief, Jim Kim, Mirziyoyev publicly committed to eradicating forced labor during his speech at the UN in December 2017. Although state-organized forced labor persisted during the 2018 cotton harvest, UGF monitors reported a reduction in the recruitment of public sector employees to pick cotton.
UGF, together with colleagues from the Cotton Campaign, took part in the first delegation of international NGOs to Uzbekistan for high level meetings with Uzbek government officials in May, 2018 to discuss the issue of forced labor and present recommendations to eradicate it. These conversations were continued in November 2018 and February 2019 in personal meetings with the Uzbek Minister for Employment and the Deputy Prime Minister. Together with partners from the Cotton Campaign, UGF is contributing to the development of a roadmap requested by the Uzbek government to support their efforts to eliminate forced labor.
Independent Monitoring for the International Finance Corporation
As the only independent organization conducting monitoring of the cotton sector, UGF was asked by the IFC to monitor in two regions of Uzbekistan in 2018 in an effort to ensure that no forced labor was used in its project areas. The findings can be found in our report of the 2018 Cotton Harvest.
Supporting Uzbek Civil Society
UGF’s ultimate mission is to empower Uzbek civil society to defend and protect their rights. UGF regularly organizes workshops and training to equip human rights defenders with the skills and knowledge they need to hold those in power to account.