In a region with almost two thirds of the world’s population, stretching a third of the way around the planet, a few individual human rights defenders, like Binayak Sen, continued to dominate headlines and affect national and geopolitical events because of their courage in speaking truth to power. The events of 2010 highlighted the crucial role of brave individuals in demanding greater dignity and respect, but they also underscored the high price these human rights defenders pay – and the continuing need for global solidarity with them.
Fifty years after Amnesty International came into being dedicated to protecting the rights of those detained simply for their opinions, Asia- Pacific governments still made a habit of responding to critics with intimidation, imprisonment, ill-treatment and even death. Government repression did not distinguish between those who were clamouring for civil and political rights and those whose complaints were rooted in violations of economic, social and cultural rights.
There was good news in 2010. In mid-November, people around the world joined in celebrating with the people of Myanmar when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was released upon the termination of her sentence, after spending 15 of the last 21 years in some form of detention.
For many years, Aung San Suu Kyi had the unfortunate distinction of being the only living recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize to be in detention. In December, that distinction was extended to Liu Xiaobo, a writer and dissident serving a prison sentence in China for his role in drafting Charter 08, a manifesto for a more responsive and inclusive government in China.
The Chinese government responded by trying – and failing – to push the Norwegian government into rescinding the honour, and then by bullying and cajoling various governments to skip the award ceremony. In the end, the ceremony was well attended, but Liu Xiaobo languished in prison, while his wife Liu Xia was held under house arrest and other members of his family and fellow activists were barred from travelling to Oslo to receive the prize or participate in the festivities. This made Liu Xiaobo’s the first Nobel Peace Prize to go physically uncollected since 1936, when the Nazi government in Germany prevented Carl von Ossietzky from attending the ceremony. The Nobel Committee’s selection of Liu Xiaobo, and the Chinese government’s petulant response, highlighted the ongoing – and even increasing – effort to silence government critics over the past three years.
The year ended with a life sentence imposed on Binayak Sen by a state court in India. Binayak Sen, a prisoner of conscience, is a physician and activist who has criticized both the Indian government and Maoist armed groups for the spiralling violence in central India. His trial was politically motivated, suffered from serious procedural and evidentiary flaws, and was roundly denounced by observers inside and outside India. Nevertheless, a sessions court in Chhattisgarh state sentenced Binayak Sen to life imprisonment for sedition – under the same problematic law used against Mahatma Gandhi by the British colonial government.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Liu Xiaobo, and Binayak Sen each served as symbols of resistance to injustice and indignity, but they are also individuals who keenly suffer the deprivations of detention. They may be at the centre of international attention, and even benefit from that attention, but in each case, government authorities have abused them and subjected their family members and associates to threats and harassment. In this sense, their plight is no different from that of thousands of activists and human rights defenders who suffer government persecution in the Asia-Pacific region but do not receive the attention of headline writers and policy-makers.
Freedom of expression
As even a cursory review of the events of 2010 shows, many journalists and activists across the Asia-Pacific region placed their lives and well- being on the line in order to challenge governments and other powerful actors to fulfil their obligations to respect the rights and dignity of all. As a result, many of those who dared exercise their right to express their opinions freely suffered violations of their civil and political rights. Paradoxically, it was often these civil and political violations that grabbed the headlines, and not the more complicated causes – often violations of economic, social and cultural rights – that prompted complaints and criticism in the first place.
Regardless of the reasons for dissent, most of the region’s governments shared the desire to inhibit critics, notwithstanding political, religious, ethnic and cultural differences. Governments across the region also shared the routine invocation of “national security” or the maintenance of harmony and stability as the rationale for their attempts to silence dissent.
North Korea’s government, beset by severe economic problems and increased political tensions with its neighbours, maintained its chokehold on all communications within the country. Vitit Muntarbhorn, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on North Korea, ended his term by roundly condemning the country’s singular lack of respect for nearly the entire gamut of internationally recognized human rights. There was no pretence of free expression or organized civil society, and the government severely punished efforts to even receive information from unauthorized sources, for instance via short-wave radio.
Few governments attempted to maintain this level of control over the opinions received and expressed by their citizens. Even in Myanmar, the government made an effort to reform its battered image (inside and outside the country) by holding parliamentary elections in November and replacing uniformed military rulers with civilian rulers (although often the very same people). The elections were widely viewed as problematic, since the electorate was denied the opportunity to debate the country’s future and many, if not most, potentially critical candidates were barred from participation.
The Myanmar government may have tried to assuage some of the intense international and regional criticism by releasing Aung San Suu Kyi only a week after holding parliamentary elections. But the ongoing detention of thousands of prisoners, many of them held in horrific conditions, countered any pretence of real concessions. It has long been known that the authorities have detained some 2,200 political activists, many of them for supporting the cause espoused by Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy. But Amnesty International’s research in 2010 uncovered how extensively the Myanmar military authorities have monitored and punished dissent among the country’s many ethnic minority groups who have long been marginalized from power and seen their land and labour forcefully expropriated.
In most other countries in the region, authorities tried to control criticism even as old and new forms of expression spread. In Viet Nam, for instance, more than a dozen activists were convicted in faulty trials simply because they had peacefully voiced criticism of government policies. Most of those convicted faced charges under vague and poorly defined laws related to “national security”.
China’s government maintained intense pressure on some ethnic minority communities, in particular ethnic Tibetans, as well as Uighurs, a largely Muslim group from the resource-rich Xinjiang region. More than a year after violent riots erupted in Xinjiang, the Chinese government continued to persecute Uighur activists and muzzle those who criticized the government’s conduct, justifying its repressive tactics by invoking the threat of “splittism” and vague and unsubstantiated threats to national security.
Critics of any ethnicity who directly challenged the Chinese government felt the heavy hand of repression. The Chinese government fell short even of the benchmarks it had established in its two-year human rights action plan, which ended in 2010. Contrary to the steady increase of public discussion on old-fashioned media platforms, such as newspapers, as well as social networking through the internet, voices that asked for a more representative government remained heavily restricted. The Chinese government showed that it is at once extremely sensitive to public criticism by the media and civil society and intensely afraid of trusting the country’s citizens to play a greater role in their own governance.
Thailand, a country which boasts a more open media environment than most of its neighbours in Southeast Asia, witnessed greater government restrictions on free speech in the face of serious political unrest and street violence. As large, sometimes violent, protests broke out in Bangkok, the government imposed a state of emergency and cracked down on thousands of websites, shutting down tens of thousands of sites on grounds that they threatened national security or had somehow insulted the monarchy in violation of the country’s harsh lese-majesty laws.
India has long prided itself on its vibrant media and powerful legal system – the bases of the country’s boast of being the largest democracy in the world. Nevertheless, untenable and unsupported allegations of threats to national security undergirded the Indian government’s case against Binayak Sen as well as hundreds of people detained in troubled Jammu and Kashmir state. Facing a significant escalation of protests against the Indian government’s heavy-handed rule in the state, Indian authorities detained dozens of suspects and held many of them in administrative detention, without proper legal process.
The citizens of several other South Asian countries also suffered from significant restrictions on their free speech. In Sri Lanka, the curtailing of journalists and civil society continued apace as President Mahinda Rajapaksa won re-election in January. Journalists and activists who opposed his government reported intimidation and threats, bolstered by several incidents in which forces believed to be linked to the government harassed, detained or abducted journalists. Similarly, Afghan journalists faced increasing harassment and attacks by state and non-state actors, especially during the country’s widely discredited parliamentary elections. But at least in government- controlled areas of Afghanistan, journalists bravely continued their work despite harassment and arbitrary detention by the authorities; unfortunately, in a growing swath of the country, the Taleban and other anti-government groups effectively shut down any critical debate.
In several instances, where governments did not directly interfere with freedom of expression, they did little to protect journalists or the space for public discourse. More than a year after the massacre of 33 journalists in the Philippines, the case against the alleged perpetrators dragged on, even as witnesses reported threats and intimidation. Pakistan was the scene of 19 lethal attacks on media workers in 2010, most of them without clear perpetrators – in different incidents, accusations ranged from the Pakistani Taleban to radical religious groups to the government’s shadowy intelligence services. The government did little to protect journalists or bring their attackers to justice. Notwithstanding these attacks, many Pakistani journalists went to great lengths to report on the country’s many ills.
Pakistan again suffered through a cataclysmic year, as unprecedented flooding in July and August submerged nearly a fifth of the country and affected some 20 million people. This catastrophe aggravated the misery facing millions of Pakistanis already afflicted by conflicted-related violence, displacement and extreme poverty. In north-west Pakistan, army personnel often violated the laws of war and human rights, arbitrarily arresting civilians and subjecting suspected insurgents to extrajudicial executions. The Pakistani Taleban and other insurgent groups in turn inflicted cruel punishments on the civilian population, targeted civilians and civilian property, including schools, and launched deadly suicide attacks in the major cities, causing hundreds of civilian deaths and injuries. In Balochistan, the bullet- riddled bodies of scores of missing Baloch activists were recovered across the province. The victims’ relatives and activists accuse the Pakistani security forces of these “kill and dump” operations. The atrocities have only added to the climate of fear and the Baloch people’s grievances of misgovernance and marginalization. But because reporting from these conflict-affected areas remained patchy and scarce, it provided only an inkling of the enormous human suffering in the province.
Similarly, in India, government restrictions and general insecurity dampened coverage (and hence understanding) of the escalating crisis posed by Maoist armed insurgencies in central and north-eastern India – referred to as India’s gravest internal security challenge by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. A potent combination of poverty, caste and ethnic discrimination, religious dogma, and corporate greed, laid the groundwork for a crisis pitting security forces and associated paramilitary groups against often indiscriminate militant groups, with civilians paying a heavy toll.
It took the work of activists like Binayak Sen to focus attention on the difficulties gripping central India and in particular Chhattisgarh state. Activists have long pointed out that the conflict across central India was fuelled by government policies that aggravated the region’s poverty, government inaction in the face of corporate wrongdoing after the 1984 Union Carbide gas disaster in Bhopal, and more recent attempts to pursue economic development without adequately consulting the region’s residents.
In a positive move, the Indian government put the brakes on the development of a large-scale aluminium mining project by UK-based Vedanta Resources and the state-owned Orissa Mining Corporation after an administrative panel found that the companies had proceeded without securing the free, prior, informed consent of the region’s Indigenous Adivasi population, for whom the area of the mine was of supreme religious importance. The decision was the first of its kind in India and raised hopes that the Indian government would provide greater attention to the Adivasi population, as well as other groups facing institutionalized poverty and marginalization.
The reversal of the Vedanta decision was the result of intense campaigning by Adivasis in close association with international groups – including Amnesty International – which marshalled global economic and public relations pressure. In London, where Vedanta shareholders were meeting in July 2010, activists used international law, economics, celebrity advocates, and even painted themselves blue to invoke the recent science fiction blockbuster film Avatar, whose plot of a native population battling corporate interlopers superficially resembled the situation in Orissa.
Access to health care and maternal mortality
In other areas, the campaign for maintaining the dignity and defending the rights of the poor and the marginalized remained fraught. In Indonesia, local groups combating the country’s disproportionately high rate of maternal mortality have recently stepped up their efforts to reverse the trends by reforming the discriminatory laws and problematic societal attitudes at the heart of the statistics. Even as thousands of Indonesian women die needlessly through pregnancy and childbirth, it has proved difficult to garner sufficient public support – and therefore government attention and resolve – to address the problem. The Indonesian government has nevertheless committed itself to improving the conditions of the country’s populace, and in particular of Indonesian women and girls. It has proved far more difficult to fight for the rights of citizens of countries whose governments, to a greater or lesser extent, simply ignore their obligations.
In North Korea, millions of people suffer from insufficient food and lack of access to medicine and health care. Egregious government mismanagement, coupled with naturally occurring draught, have led to extreme shortages so that people in many circumstances have had
to supplement their food with inedible plants and make do without even basic health care. Despite these difficulties, the North Korean government has restricted the distribution of international aid.
Afghanistan still suffered from one of the worst maternal mortality rates in the world: one in eight Afghan women died of pregnancy- related complications. Early marriage – often under the age of 15 – and lack of access to medical intervention until complications become severe, are two factors that have hampered improvement in the situation.
Few situations are as extreme as in North Korea and Afghanistan. But the wilful violation of international human rights can occur even in a much wealthier country like Malaysia, where the government has defied the international prohibition of torture by continuing to allow the caning of thousands of people detained on allegations of immigration violations and petty criminal activity. According to the government’s own records, over the past decade, tens of thousands of people have been caned, a practice that causes victims extreme pain and permanent scarring. In February, three women were caned for allegedly violating religious law, or Shari’a, the first time women had received such a punishment. The Malaysian government has even enlisted physicians to aid the process by ensuring that victims of caning are prepared for the punishment, a clear violation of medical ethics and the physicians’ obligation to prevent harm to those in their care.
Unfortunately, instead of acting immediately to end this shameful practice, the Malaysian government attempted to stifle internal debate and even resorted to physically blacking out copies of the international weekly Time magazine that carried a reference to the “epidemic” of caning in Malaysia.
Media attention and public pressure are only one of the components necessary to ensure that our leaders are responsive and accountable for respecting international human rights. The restrictions governments placed on monitoring suggested how important it has been to bear witness and speak the truth. But without some mechanism to translate this testimony into justice, powerful people all too often get away with wrongdoing. In 2010, the scales of justice in the Asia-Pacific region remained decidedly out of balance in favour of the perpetrators.
The government of Sri Lanka spent the year trying to avoid accountability for the war crimes and human rights violations that characterized the long conflict which ended in the military annihilation of the armed group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (themselves responsible for numerous human rights abuses) – at the cost of thousands of civilians killed, injured and detained. Despite a promise to the UN to provide justice, the government established a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission whose mandate made no mention of accountability. The Commission seemed destined to join the other ultimately futile special bodies established over the last two decades to address impunity in Sri Lanka, without actually leading to justice. Hope for accountability centred on an advisory panel of experts assigned to assist UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in assessing the need for an international accountability mechanism.
Existing international accountability mechanisms had a mixed record in 2010. In Cambodia, the notorious Khmer Rouge prison official Kaing Guek Eav, also known as “Duch”, was sentenced in July to 35 years in jail for crimes against humanity and war crimes, the first such conviction by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal. Four more Khmer Rouge leaders remain in custody pending hearings, a small but decidedly significant step forward in the search for accountability for the country’s killing fields. Cambodia’s leader, Hun Sen, publicly called for the ECCC to limit its activity to these five people.
Similarly, in March, President José Ramos-Horta of Timor-Leste told the UN Human Rights Council that “in the efforts to bring about peace between long-standing rival communities, often we have to compromise on justice.” This statement flew in the face of recommendations from Timor-Leste’s own Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in 2005, as well as by Timorese victims, national human rights groups and UN justice experts.
So far, the principle of international justice in the Asia-Pacific region has been honoured more in the breach than in actual practice. But in 2010 the notion that powerful people – even heads of state – can and should be subject to justice was no longer alien, as demonstrated by the lengths to which governments, corporations and armed groups went to pay lip service to the notion of justice while carefully evading legal liability.
The heart of the struggle
Some activists in the Asia-Pacific region, like Aung San Suu Kyi, Liu Xiaobo and Binayak Sen, have achieved global prominence, and they each have used their fame, and faced unfair punishments, to push for improvements in the rights of the people of the Asia-Pacific region. The most important contribution made by these human rights defenders is not through their iconic status, but rather, through describing that what happened to them has happened to hundreds of less famous other brave critics and activists. Ultimately, it is crucial to maintain a focus on the violations they have suffered, because, as shown by the case of Duch, as well as other successful international prosecutions, it takes only one case, one set of individual facts, to secure a conviction for violations of international human rights law. That is why in 2010, as in years past, the work of individual human rights defenders remained at the heart of the struggle for human rights worldwide, even when they were addressing massive and systematic violations in a region that houses nearly two thirds of the world’s population and stretches a third of the way around the globe.