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Human Rights in Asia

9 March 2017

The annual report of Amnesty International released on 22 February paints a depressing picture of the human rights situation in Asia which it claims has worsened during 2016-17. It pointed out that young people were using social media to expose injustice but too often governments displayed ‘an appalling disregard for freedom, justice and dignity’.

In East Asia, the report stated that governmental transparency diminished and the perception of a growing gap between governments and their citizens increased. This was compounded by entrenched repression in countries such as China and North Korea. A pattern of deepening intolerance towards criticism and open debate unfolded in South Asia, with bloggers murdered in Bangladesh, media workers assailed in Pakistan and space for civil society in countries such as India shrinking. In Southeast Asia, key rights – freedoms of thought, conscience, religion, opinion, expression, association and assembly – came under extensive assault, with crackdowns by Thailand’s military regime and attempts to mute political voices in Malaysia.

As the space for civil society shrank in many countries, discrimination – particularly against racial and ethnic minorities, and women and girls – expanded in a range of countries and contexts. In many states torture and other ill-treatment was among the tools used to target human rights defenders, marginalized groups and others. Such violations were often sustained by a failure to ensure accountability for torturers and other perpetrators of human rights violations. Impunity was pernicious, frequently chronic, and common to many states. 

The regional backdrop of repression, conflict and insecurity fuelled the global refugee crisis. Across the region, millions became refugees and asylum-seekers, forced from their homes often into appalling and life threatening conditions. Many were stranded in precarious situations, vulnerable to myriad further abuses.

In the Philippines, state-sanctioned violence, typically in the form of unlawful killings, occurred on a massive scale under Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency. The brutal crackdown on those suspected of involvement in drug crimes led to over 6,000 people killed in the so-called “war on drugs”.

The Chinese government also drafted or enacted laws and regulations under the pretext of enhancing national security, but which could be used to silence dissent and suppress human rights defenders under broadly defined offences such as “inciting subversion” and “leaking state secrets”.

North Korea exercised extreme repression, violating almost the full spectrum of human rights. There were severe restrictions on freedom of expression and no domestic independent media or civil society organizations. Up to 120,000 individuals continued to be held in prison camps where torture and other ill-treatment, including forced labour, was widespread and routine. State control, oppression and intimidation intensified since Kim Jung-un came to power in 2011.

The South Korean National Assembly passed an anti-terrorism law substantially expanding powers of surveillance of communications and the collection of personal information of people suspected of terrorist links.

In Mongolia, civil society organizations working for human rights protection faced regular intimidation, harassment and threats mainly by private actors.

Pakistani media workers faced occupational hazards like abduction, arbitrary arrest and detention, intimidation, killings and harassment by state and non-state actors.

In Thailand, ongoing suppression of peaceful dissent since the 2014 military coup created an environment in which few dared to criticize the authorities publicly. Human rights defenders faced charges of criminal defamation for speaking out about violations or for supporting vulnerable individuals and communities.

In Cambodia the authorities increasingly abused the criminal justice system. The security forces harassed and punished civil society in attempts to silence critics; human rights defenders were threatened, arrested and detained for their peaceful work; and the political opposition was targeted, with activists and officials imprisoned after unfair trials.

In Malaysia, attempts to choke peaceful dissent and freedom of speech included the widespread use of national security legislation and other restrictive laws.

In Viet Nam, human rights defenders faced threats and attacks. Prisoners of conscience were held in prisons and detention centres, and subjected to enforced disappearance, torture and other ill treatment.

Security forces in Timor-Leste were accused of unlawful killings, torture and other ill-treatment, arbitrary arrests, and the arbitrary restriction of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

Tens of thousands of people from Myanmar’s Rohingya minority fled northern Rakhine State, where security forces led by the military, randomly fired at villagers, torched hundreds of homes, carried out arbitrary arrests, and raped women and girls. Villagers were placed under night curfews and humanitarian agencies were barred from the area.

The Indonesian authorities often appeared to be more concerned about hardline religious groups than respecting and protecting human rights.

In Laos, there continues to be similarly little room for dissent against the ruling Lao People's Revolutionary Party. The authorities have also provided no information on the whereabouts of Sombath Somphone, a prominent civil society member who was abducted outside a police post in the Vientiane, in 2012.

The report concludes that against a backdrop of China's rising influence in mainland South-east Asia, which has reinforced the norm of state sovereignty in the region, and coupled with the election in the US of Donald Trump as president, who has promised to pursue an "America First" policy abroad, the human rights situation in these countries is unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future.

For the full Amnesty International report see