EU foreign ministers will discuss a German-led initiative to boost cooperation with energy-rich Central Asia next week, amid calls for them to ensure human rights issues are not sidelined.
The plan for closer ties with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan has been prompted by worries the European Union is lagging rivals in competition for Central Asian energy supplies.
EU President Germany hopes to see the strategy adopted at a summit in June after a first round of discussions between the 27 EU member states on a draft of the plan in Luxembourg on Monday.
A draft of the German Central Asia paper seen by Reuters notes the need for the EU to diversify its energy supplies and calls for an establishment of a regular political dialogue with Central Asia at a foreign minister level to deepen ties.
It also calls for a results orientated dialogue on human rights while offering to support educational development and oil and gas exploration with a view to new pipelines.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch has stressed the European Union should make respect for human rights an integral part of the strategy, by incorporating measurable benchmarks.
It noted that the rights records of all five Central Asian states were poor overall and the situation in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan had worsened since they were under Soviet rule.
In a statement it said that a weakness in the approach to rights in EU discussion papers on Central Asia contrasted with a more robust approach to energy, security and trade.
"The EU should link closer engagement with Central Asian countries with real progress in improving human rights," said Holly Carter, Central Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
"The EU doesn’t have to trade human rights for energy resources," she said.
Uzbekistan has already shown itself to be sensitive to criticism on rights.
After talks with EU ministers who visited Central Asia last month to promote the German plan, Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov told the Europeans he was ready for more dialogue, but not lectures on human rights.
He also played down the impact of the EU sanctions, including a halt in military sales and a visa ban imposed after Brussels accused Uzbekistan of using indiscriminate force to quash a uprising in the town of Andizhan in May 2005.
These sanctions are due for review next month and activists have urged the European Union not to lift them, saying this could trigger further repression.
Human Rights Watch this week expressed concern about what it termed a tendency by Germany to be "over-accommodating" toward the Uzbek government and comments by Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, who said he hoped the EU would lift the sanctions now Uzbekistan had agreed to a dialogue on rights.
By David Brunnstrom Reuters April 20, 2007