This week, on 22 April 2009, the European Parliament approved an interim trade agreement with Turkmenistan (for the full text of the resolution see here). Such an agreement would facilitate market access of Turkmen goods to the European Community and vice versa. This information would probably not be worthy of more than a minor note in some EU newsletter if Turkmenistan was not a notorious human rights violator. Similar to its neighbor country Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan is known for having in place one of the most authoritarian regimes, a large number of political prisoners, and a ban on international NGOs and the International Committee of the Red Cross (see the fact-sheet by Human Rights Watch from 2008).
For this reason – and indeed unsurprisingly – the Parliament’s approval provoked some rather strong reactions, including that by Human Rights Watch. The Parliament’s approval of the trade agreement and its criticism illustrate a typical tension relating to human rights implementation through trade policy. Some actors, such as most NGOs active in this field (see here for a joint letter by six of them to the European Parliament) had argued that the EU should use its political leverage on Turkmenistan before signing any agreement to make it respect certain key standards. By contrast, the European Commission and the Council advocated that the EU would be in a better position to influence Turkmenistan’s human rights situation after signing the agreement.
Nowadays, the EU inserts so-called human rights clauses in its trade and developments agreements that make respect for human rights a key condition of these agreements. The EU could thus arguably withdraw the trade preferences granted to Turkmenistan in the event of major human rights violations. However, the EU has been rather reluctant to make use of these clauses. Up to now, only the human rights clause the Cotonou Agreement and its predecessors relating to the ACP-states has been applied at all and even here the application has been criticised for being inconsistent.
Under these circumstances, one might ask what the motivation of the Turkmen government for an improvement of the human rights situation could be if Turkmenistan already got what it wants and the EU is unlikely to take it away from it. The skepticism concerning the EU’s impact on the Turmenistan’s human rights situation after concluding the agreement is therefore somewhat justified. Also, it seems that the human rights argumentation of the Commission and the Council (which the Parliament meanwhile partially joined) is not completely altruistic. Turkmenistan is a country with major gas resources and it is not far-fetched to thing that this somewhat increased the EU’s interest in Turkmenistan. Honni soit qui mal y pense.