It's time for the UK to show global leadership on Turkmenistan's human rights abuses, says Comment Central.

As the dawn of Brexit approaches, the UK is entering a crucial phase in its foreign policy; one that is likely to define its international approach for much of the 21st Century.

The Foreign Affairs Committee under the leadership of Tom Tugendhat has become an increasingly important actor in the UK's debate on foreign policy, launching necessary and important inquiries.

One such initiative is the recently announced Autocracies and UK Foreign Policy Inquiry. Its remit is to examine British policy towards autocratic states and the ways in which they interact with the rules-based system. It is essential that it looks beyond the countries that make headlines to those that will be of increased geopolitical importance in the coming years.

An area worthy of focus is how the UK Government promotes economic interaction with such regimes. One such example is the Turkmenistan-UK Trade & Industry Council (TUKTIC) which meets this week in Ashgabat. 

Central Asia is growing in significance due to its strategic position between China and its target markets in Europe.

The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative looks back to a time when the region was at the centre of the transcontinental Silk Road. Recent publications including The Dawn of Eurasia by the former Portuguese Europe Minister Bruno Ma?aes and the The New Silk Roads by Professor Peter Frankopan have highlighted the importance of the region. Given the UK's departure from the EU and its proactive engagement with the Belt and Road initiative (the Chancellor of the Exchequer will attend a forum this month) the countries of Central Asia are set to grow in importance to the UK.

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TUKTIC is an example of the kind of vehicle that could facilitate greater British commercial involvement in the region. However, the Government's encouragement of such engagement overlooks the vile nature of the Turkmen regime.

The Government of Turkmenistan ? led by the bizarre Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow ? is violent, repressive and hostile to investment. Turkmenistan ranks only one point above North Korean in Freedom House's annual Freedom in the World Rankings, being awarded an aggregate score of 4/100 compared to North Korea's 3/100. Political opponents are subject to forced disappearances with many being held at the Ovadan Depe prison outside the capital Ashgabat. Inmates are subject to starvation, beatings and intentional exposure to disease. Most do not survive.

Alongside the brutal repression of its own people, the Turkmen regime has an exceptionally hostile approach to business. Private property is not respected, with Article 21 of its Investment Law (last amended in 1993) allowing property to be confiscated at short notice via court decision ? in reality confiscation happens at the whim of corrupt officials. There is a long history of arbitrary expropriation. MTS, a Russian telecommunications company, was hounded out of the country following extensive political interference and extortion. Any significant investment by British companies will put them at risk of similar behaviour.

There is a clear case for the Foreign Affairs Committee to address the UK's approach to Turkmenistan as part of its inquiry.

TUKTIC was established by the British Embassy in conjunction with the Government of Turkmenistan in 2010 to increase the opportunities for trade and investment between the two countries. Whilst it is natural for governments to maintain engagement of some kind with countries it differs from, this approach is laden with risk and immorality. It is inconceivable that the British Government would encourage investment in North Korea and yet it does so openly with Turkmenistan; a country with a similarly abhorrent approach to human rights and the economic development of its populace. It is only able to do so due to the lack of media and political attention.

The Foreign Affairs Committee should examine TUKTIC, and other initiatives like it, to ensure that the UK's approach to such countries is subject to the necessary level of political and public scrutiny.

The inquiry is a worthwhile and necessary undertaking and has the potential to play a role in shaping the UK's foreign policy towards repressive states. Turkmenistan is one such state; and one that the UK should have nothing to do with.

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