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Asia and the Pacific

Asia and the Pacific

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Regional overview 2004


Elections and denial of civil and political rights

Human rights shaped many political agendas during elections in Afghanistan, Australia, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Philippines and South Korea. In India, rural poverty and the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act were key issues in negotiations between coalition parties in the new government of the United Progressive Alliance. In Indonesia, the presidential candidacy of former armed forces chief General Wiranto attracted international criticism because of his indictment by the UN-sponsored court in Timor-Leste for crimes against humanity. He was not elected.

Bhutan, Brunei and the Maldives were among countries that made tentative moves towards democratization and increased human rights protection. Repression of human rights continued to be reported, however. In the Maldives, demonstrations in support of a faster pace of reforms resulted in the imposition of a state of emergency, the mass arrest and arbitrary detention of scores of political activists and members of parliament, and allegations of sexual abuse and other ill-treatment.

Political dissent continued to be suppressed in countries including China, Laos, Myanmar, North Korea and Viet Nam. New, often draconian, regulations on use of the Internet restricted freedom of expression in China and Viet Nam. In Myanmar, despite the reconvening of the National Convention in May and a change of leadership in October, the political stalemate prevailing since 1988 offered little prospect of increased freedom of expression and association. Hundreds of prisoners, including National League for Democracy leaders Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin Oo, were wrongfully denied their liberty for peaceful acts that would not be considered crimes under international law. Thousands of prisoners were released in November, apparently because their imprisonment was the result of “improper deeds” by officials. Only about 40 political prisoners were believed to be among those released, and more than 1,300 remained behind bars. Sentenced after unfair trials, many of them had been convicted under security legislation and often solely for peaceful acts of dissent.

The legal framework for the protection of human rights in Asia remained weak. Ineffectual criminal justice systems provided little redress to the most vulnerable, including women and indigenous people, whose dominant reality continued to be hardship and discrimination. In countries such as Bangladesh, Malaysia, Pakistan and the Philippines, police corruption denied people the protection of human rights.

Armed conflict

Nepal slipped deeper into a security and political crisis. Despite scrutiny by the UN Commission on Human Rights, the authorities failed to put in place any meaningful mechanisms to increase respect for human rights. For the second successive year, the highest number of “disappearances” reported to the UN were in Nepal.

In Sri Lanka, during the run-up to parliamentary elections in April, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam killed several candidates and supporters of rival political parties.

In NAD province in Indonesia, where the military emergency was officially downgraded to a civil emergency, the pattern of grave abuses of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights continued. The Indonesian security forces were primarily responsible for these violations, although the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) also committed serious abuses, notably the taking of hostages and the use of child soldiers.

The death by suffocation of at least 78 demonstrators, piled on top of each other in lorries to be transferred to custody, brought to international attention the emerging conflict between the security forces and armed groups in the mainly Muslim part of southern Thailand. At the end of 2004, the death toll among both Buddhist and Muslim civilians was estimated to be around 500.

In India, particularly in Jammu and Kashmir and several states in the north-east, human rights abuses by the army and armed political groups continued, despite tentative moves towards political settlements. In Mindanao, the Philippines, a ceasefire agreement was periodically broken as forces of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) clashed with government forces. During fighting that often forced local people from their homes, both sides reportedly breached international humanitarian law, in indiscriminate attacks by the armed forces and in the use of “human shields” by MILF forces.

The International Atomic Energy Agency warned in November of a race against time to stop a “nuclear outrage” by “terrorist” groups in Asia. In South Asia, as relations improved between India and Pakistan, a moratorium on nuclear tests by both countries was announced in June.

‘War on terror’

Human rights continued to be under attack in the global “war on terror”. In Afghanistan, hundreds of people suspected of being sympathizers of the Taleban or al-Qa’ida were held in long-term arbitrary detention at Bagram airbase and other detention centres run by the US armed forces. Without access to judicial authorities, the detainees were effectively beyond the reach or protection of the law. Armed political groups attacked aid and election workers, killing 12 election staff and injuring more than 30 during the presidential election campaign. In Pakistan, the military carried out arbitrary detentions, possible extrajudicial executions and the deliberate destruction of houses during operations to remove from South Waziristan tribal area people suspected of association with the Taleban or al-Qa’ida. Armed groups were reported to have taken hostages and in some cases to have killed them.

In Southeast Asia, armed groups killed civilians in attacks in Indonesia and the Philippines. Six people were charged in connection with the killing of over 100 passengers in a bomb attack on a ferryboat in Manila Bay, the Philippines, in February. The six were alleged to be members of Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim separatist armed group involved in kidnappings and accused of links with al-Qa’ida. Most of the victims of a number of bomb attacks in Indonesia, including on the Australian Embassy, were Indonesian civilians.

Arbitrary detentions and unfair trials took place under security legislation in force in China, India, Malaysia, Nepal and Pakistan. In the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China, members of the predominantly Muslim Uighur community continued to be detained as suspected “separatists, terrorists and religious extremists”. Unofficial mosques were closed and certain Uighur language books and journals banned.

Violence against women

The impact on women and children of long-standing conflicts across the region was severe. In Jammu and Kashmir, a paramilitary unit, the Rasthriya Rifles, was reported to be responsible for a series of sexual assaults on women. In Manipur, northeast India, the alleged sexual assault and killing in custody of a young woman, Thangjam Manorama, sparked calls for the repeal of security legislation that had facilitated human rights abuses for decades. In Laos, in one of the worst single incidents of the 30-year conflict, five children on a foraging mission were reportedly ambushed by up to 40 soldiers, mutilated and killed. Four of the children, girls aged between 13 and 16, had apparently been raped before they were killed.

In Afghanistan, a new Constitution provided for gender equality. In practice, discrimination against women was still pervasive. Many women in prison had been accused of “running away” from home, adultery and other unlawful sexual activity outside marriage (zina crimes). Women who were raped did not complain to the authorities, primarily for fear that they would themselves be prosecuted for unlawful sexual activity.

Impunity for violence against women, both during armed conflict and in the domestic sphere, was pervasive. One example was the failure of the authorities in the Solomon Islands, despite assistance from a military-backed regional intervention force, to bring to justice those responsible for rape and other acts of sexual violence during the armed conflict of 1998-2003.

Refugees, internally displaced people and migrants

Millions of refugees and internally displaced people continued to be denied their rights. Refugees returning to Afghanistan faced prolonged insecurity, unemployment, inadequate shelter and a lack of access to land. The international community’s attention was drawn to the plight of more than 1.5 million people displaced as a result of the tsunami. In contrast, the problems of hundreds of thousands of people in Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka – driven from their homes as a result of internal conflicts and forced to find safety within their own countries – went largely unnoticed.

The conflict in NAD province of Indonesia forced refugees to flee to Jakarta and abroad, particularly to Malaysia, a destination of choice for many Indonesians seeking employment. The Malaysian authorities threatened to deport hundreds of thousands of migrants in a mass operation. An amnesty period, granted to allow migrants to return voluntarily to their home countries, was extended in November and again following the tsunami disaster.

In South Korea, Japan and many other countries in Asia, migrants frequently faced discrimination in accessing their rights to equality, housing, health care and labour rights.

Death penalty

Asia remained the continent with the highest number of reported executions, with China, Singapore and Viet Nam heading the list. In China, with few effective safeguards to protect the rights of defendants, large numbers of people continued to be executed after unfair trials. In October, the authorities announced reforms aimed at upholding the rights of criminal suspects and defendants, including reinstatement of Supreme Court reviews in death penalty cases. It remained unclear, however, when these measures would be introduced.

Countries that resumed executions after intervals of several years included Indonesia, where three people were put to death in the first executions since 2001. In April, Afghanistan conducted the first execution known to have taken place since the fall of the Taleban. In India, the first known execution since 1997 was carried out amid public protests across the country and the subsequent resignation of the hangman. The outcry drew attention to the commutations that had previously been granted in similar cases.

Bhutan, one of the few countries to go against this negative trend, abolished the death penalty in law. There was further hope that emerging public debate might result in reduced use of the death penalty in the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea and Tonga.

Human rights defenders

Human rights defenders in the region risked harassment, arbitrary detention and threats to their lives. In Nepal, the lives of activists and their families were often in danger from both sides in the armed conflict. In the course of their work, lawyers and members of human rights organizations and the National Human Rights Commission received threatening telephone calls from unidentified people believed to be members of or closely associated with the army.

In China, the authorities continued to bring charges of subversion or vaguely defined national security offences against peaceful civil society activists and advocates of reform. Lawyers, journalists, HIV/AIDS activists and housing rights advocates were among those harassed, detained or imprisoned for documenting human rights abuses, campaigning for reform, or attempting to obtain redress for those whose rights had been violated. Li Dan, an AIDS activist, was briefly detained and beaten up after his release by unidentified assailants. His school for AIDS orphans in Henan province, where up to one million people reportedly became HIV-positive after selling their blood plasma to state-sanctioned blood collection stations, had recently been closed down by the local authorities.

Human rights activists in the region mobilized across national boundaries, particularly to counter the impact of the “war on terror” on human rights. Asia hosted several international meetings on human rights. At the World Social Forum in January in Mumbai, India, tens of thousands of activists debated the impact of the “war on terror” and globalization on human rights and human dignity. In September in Seoul, South Korea, national human rights institutions (NHRIs) from around the world considered the need to protect human rights in the context of the “war on terror”. At a regional gathering of such institutions in February in Kathmandu, Nepal, members of the Asia Pacific Forum of NHRIs considered the issue of “terrorism and the rule of law”, including an interim report of its Advisory Council of Jurists.