Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, beginning a three-day Central Asian trip in Kazakhstan, said Tuesday the Obama administration will continue to press for human rights progress in the region. Clinton is attending the summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, in Astana.
It is the first summit of the OSCE since 1999 and the first to be held in a former Soviet republic. And Clinton is making clear that the Obama administration remains committed to the human rights provisions of the 1975 Helsinki accords on which the OSCE was founded, and particularly as they apply to Central Asia.
At a town hall meeting in Astana of students and civil society activists from across the region, Clinton praised Kazakhstan for holding the event, even while reiterating U.S. concerns about human rights and the pace of democracy-building in the country.
The secretary said the Kazakh government of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, overall, has made more progress than any other in the region, in economic development and other areas.
And she said it deserves enormous credit for completing earlier this month, with U.S. assistance, the shut-down of a Soviet-era plutonium plant and the securing of a vast stockpile of weapons-grade nuclear material.
"I think non-proliferation is a human rights issue," said Clinton. "I think the effort to go after the nuclear material that can fall into the wrong hands, that can used to terrorize, maim, kill people, contaminate large areas, is a fundamental human rights issue. And in this area Kazakhstan has been a world leader."
Clinton will join heads of state and fellow foreign ministers of the 56-country OSCE in summit sessions Wednesday and also meet senior Kazakh officials including President Nazarbayev.
Thursday she makes stops in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan before flying on to attend a privately-sponsored security conference in Bahrain.
Clinton will be the highest-level U.S. official to visit Kyrgystan since an explosion of ethnic violence earlier this year toppled the government of former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
The country has since had a constitutional referendum, widely-praised parliamentary elections in October and the formation this week of a new coalition government. The Secretary said the United States and all those concerned about Kyrgyzstan need to support the emerging democracy there.
"It is a very difficult path that they have chosen for themselves, but the United States will do everything we can to support them," said the secretary of state. "I very much appreciate the role of the government of Kazakhstan, which has been extremely helpful in support Kyrgyzstan. And we have to keep working together. We have to do everything possible to help them succeed at their important effort to bring democracy to Kyrgyzstan."
The Secretary told a questioner she would raise the issue of jailed human rights activists in Uzbekistan "at the highest levels" when she visits Tashkent late Thursday.
She said the United States will make similar representations with leaders of Turkmenistan - the Central Asian state widely held to have the region's worst human rights record - though it is not on her current itinerary.
Clinton is expected to have several bilateral meetings with other officials at the OSCE summit, which has attracted, among others, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.