U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sets off later this week on a tour of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia that is likely to be closely watched for how strongly he raises human rights issues.
The five independent "stans," once isolated from the outside world, have gained global significance because of their proximity to conflict-torn Afghanistan. The region also lies on some of the world's biggest untapped oil, gas, uranium and gold reserves.
The United Nations has billed Ban's week-long trip, starting on Thursday, to Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan as a chance to discuss regional cooperation, nuclear non-proliferation, climate change and development.
"The secretary-general believes that Central Asia is central to the world," U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said. "It has a strategic role, natural resources, five very different countries that cooperate but could cooperate even more closely."
But advocacy groups have made clear they want the U.N. chief to press rights issues in countries they believe fall well short of democratic standards.
Last week, the U.N. Human Rights Committee, a panel of 18 independent and unpaid experts, raised a string of concerns about Uzbekistan and charged that it had failed to properly investigate a bloody crackdown on protesters five years ago.
In a comment on that report, New York-based Human Rights Watch said Ban's trip "provides a perfect opportunity to convey a strong message to the Uzbek government about human rights reform."
Radical Islam is on the rise in the traditionally Muslim states of the region. Stability there is key to Western efforts to turn the tide in the Afghan war and prevent Taliban-style militancy from spreading to neighboring countries.
Thousands of people have been jailed across Central Asia on terrorist charges, but the trend has drawn criticism from rights groups, who say governments are using the threat as an excuse to crack down on broader political dissent.
U.N. officials say Ban will raise rights concerns in his talks with local leaders. "He's not going to ignore human rights," one official said. "He's very conscious we need to address these questions, but what form it takes may be different in each place."
Publicly at least, he may prefer to focus on themes like disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation.
He will visit the former Soviet nuclear test site of Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan, which was closed when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The United Nations is working with Kazakhstan and other nations to clean up the site.
U.N. officials say that is symbolic ahead of the April 8 signature in Prague of a new U.S.-Russian strategic arms pact, a nuclear security summit in Washington on April 12-13 and a Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference at the United Nations in May.
Taking up another favorite theme, the environment, Ban will take a helicopter flight over the Aral Sea, once the world's fourth largest lake, which shrank by 70 percent after Soviet planners siphoned off water for cotton irrigation projects in Uzbekistan.
(Editing by Stacey Joyce)
Source: Reuters US Online Report World News