The human rights landscape of the Asia-Pacific region was mostly characterized by government failures. However, these frequently contrasted with an inspiring and growing movement of human rights defenders and activists.
Many countries saw a shrinking space for civil society. Human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists and others found themselves the target of state repression – from an unprecedented crackdown on freedom of expression in China to sweeping intolerance of dissent in Cambodia and Thailand and enforced disappearances in Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Impunity was widespread – breeding and sustaining violations including unlawful killings and torture, denying justice and reparation to millions, and fuelling crimes against humanity or war crimes in countries such as Myanmar and Afghanistan.
The global refugee crisis worsened. Hundreds of thousands in the region were forced to flee their homes and faced uncertain, often violent, futures. Their numbers were swelled by the Myanmar military’s crimes against humanity in northern Rakhine State where the army burned entire Rohingya villages, killed adults and children, and raped women and girls. The mass violations forced more than 655,000 Rohingya to escape persecution by fleeing to Bangladesh. Those who remained continued to live under a systematically discriminatory system amounting to apartheid which severely restricted virtually every aspect of their lives and segregated them from the rest of society.
ASEAN, chaired by the Philippines during 2017, marked its 50th anniversary. ASEAN governments and institutions remained silent over the massive violations in the Philippines, Myanmar and elsewhere in the region.
Against this backdrop, growing calls to respect and protect human rights in Asia-Pacific, increasingly by young people, delivered some progress and hope. There were advances in policing in the Republic of Korea (South Korea), and positive court rulings on corporate accountability in South Korea; on marriage equality in Australia and Taiwan; and on the right to privacy in India.
The authorities in Japan, Mongolia and South Korea all failed to adequately protect human rights defenders. Human rights defenders were specifically targeted and persecuted in China. A notable shrinking of space for civil society was especially apparent in China, and was of increasing concern in Hong Kong and Japan.
Human rights protection was diluted in Japan where parliament adopted an overly broad law targeting “terrorism” and other serious crimes, despite harsh criticism from civil society and academics. This law gave the authorities broad surveillance powers that could be misused to curtail human rights.
Following a change of government in South Korea, the national police accepted recommendations for a change in the overall approach of policing in order to allow the full and free exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. Also in South Korea, while hundreds of conscientious objectors were imprisoned, an increasing number of lower courts handed down decisions recognizing the right to conscientious objection, and court rulings acknowledged the responsibility of multinational corporations for work-related death or illness of employees.
The consecration of President Xi Jinping as China’s most powerful leader for many years took place against the backdrop of a stifling of freedom of expression and information. Authorities increasingly used “national security” as justification for restriction of human rights and detention of activists; the tactic escalated significantly in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) where, under the leadership of new regional Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, authorities put new emphasis on “social stability” and increased technological surveillance, armed street patrols and security checkpoints and implemented an array of intrusive policies violating human rights. Authorities set up detention facilities within the XUAR, variously called “counter extremism centres”, “political study centres” or “education and transformation centres”, in which people were arbitrarily detained for unspecified periods and forced to study Chinese laws and policies.
Citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) continued to face a series of grave human rights violations, some of which amounted to crimes against humanity. The rights to freedom of expression and movement were severely restricted, and up to 120,000 people continued to be arbitrarily detained in political prison camps, where they were subjected to forced labour, torture and other ill-treatment.
Human rights defenders
The Chinese authorities continued their unprecedented crackdown on dissent with a ruthless campaign of arbitrary arrests, detention, imprisonment and torture and other ill-treatment of human rights lawyers and activists. The authorities persisted in the use of “residential surveillance in a designated location”, a form of secret incommunicado detention that allowed the police to hold individuals for up to six months outside the formal detention system, without access to legal counsel of their choice, their families or others, and placed suspects at risk of torture and other ill-treatment. This form of detention was used to curb the activities of human rights defenders, including lawyers, activists and religious practitioners.
The government also continued to imprison those trying to commemorate peacefully the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 3-4 June 1989 in the capital, Beijing, in which hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters were killed or injured after the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on unarmed civilians. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiabo died in custody in July.
In Hong Kong, the repeated use of vague charges against prominent pro-democracy movement figures appeared to be an orchestrated and retaliatory campaign by the authorities to punish and intimidate those advocating democracy or challenging the authorities.
People on the move
In Japan, while asylum applications continued to increase, the government reported in February that it had approved 28 out of 10,901 claims in 2016, which was a 44% increase in claims from the previous year. Meanwhile, to address the country’s labour shortage, Japan began to accept the first of 10,000 Vietnamese nationals to be admitted over three years under a labour migration programme harshly criticized by human rights advocates for facilitating a wide range of abuses.
In South Korea, deaths of migrant workers raised concerns about safety in the workplace. North Korean authorities continued to dispatch workers to other countries, including China and Russia, although some countries stopped renewing or issuing additional work visas to North Koreans in order to comply with the new UN sanctions on North Korea’s economic activities abroad in response to the country’s missile tests.
In China, religious repression remained particularly severe in the XUAR and in Tibetan-populated areas.
Discrimination against LGBTI people remained prevalent in public life in South Korea. Gay men faced violence, bullying and verbal abuse during compulsory military service. A serving soldier was convicted of same-sex sexual activity.
Although pervasive discrimination based on real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity continued in Japan, there was some progress in local municipalities. For the first time in the city of Osaka, the authorities approved a same-sex couple as foster parents, and two other municipalities took positive steps towards recognizing same-sex partnerships.
A landmark ruling by its highest court saw Taiwan close to becoming the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage, in a major step forward for LGBTI rights. The judges ruled the country’s marriage law unconstitutional as it discriminated against same-sex couples, and gave lawmakers two years to amend or enact relevant laws. A bill on same-sex marriage was being considered by Taiwan’s legislature.
China remained the world’s leading executioner, although capital punishment statistics continued to be classified as state secrets.
Taiwan’s Supreme Court rejected the Prosecutor General’s extraordinary appeal for the retrial of the longest-serving death row inmate in Taiwan’s modern history; Chiou Ho-shun, on death row since 1989, claimed that he was tortured and forced to “confess” during police interrogations.
In July, Mongolia became the 105th country worldwide to abolish the death penalty for all crimes, yet in November the President proposed its reintroduction to the Ministry of Justice in response to two violent rape and murder cases.
Across South Asia, governments invoked law and order, national security and religion as they engaged in attacks against religious minorities, criminalization of freedom of expression, enforced disappearances, prolific use of the death penalty, and assaults on refugee rights. Impunity was widespread.
Freedom of expression was under attack across South Asia. Using vague concepts such as “the national interest” as an excuse to silence people, governments targeted journalists, human rights defenders and others for peacefully expressing their beliefs.
A new trend involved criminalizing online freedom of expression. In Pakistan, five bloggers critical of the government were subjected to enforced disappearance. Other bloggers were arrested for comments criticizing the military or allegedly expressing remarks deemed “anti-Islamic”. Criticism of the Bangladesh government or the family of the Prime Minister also triggered criminal cases. The government proposed a new Digital Security Act, which would place even greater restrictions on the right to freedom of expression and impose heavier penalties. In Afghanistan, where internet penetration is among the lowest in the Asia-Pacific region, a new Cyber Crime Law was passed criminalizing freedom of expression.
Failures to uphold economic, cultural and social rights had major impacts. As a result of Pakistan failing to bring its laws into line with international standards, the population suffered widespread discrimination, curtailed workers’ rights, and meagre social security. India ratified two ILO core conventions on child labour, but activists remained critical of amendments to the country’s child labour laws that allowed children to work in family enterprises. Two years after a massive earthquake shook Nepal, the government was still failing thousands of marginalized earthquake survivors who languished in flimsy temporary shelters.
In October, Pakistan was elected to the UN Human Rights Council, pledging commitment to human rights. Yet it failed to address directly Pakistan’s serious human rights issues, including enforced disappearances; the death penalty; blasphemy laws; the use of military courts to try civilians; women’s rights; and threats to the work of human rights defenders.
Killings, abductions and other abuses were committed by armed groups in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, among others. Civilian casualties, particularly of religious minorities, continued to be high in Afghanistan. In Pakistan, armed groups targeted Shi’a Muslims, including by bombing a Shi’a mosque in Quetta, killing at least 18 people.
Violations around Nepal’s historic local elections included arbitrary arrests and detention, and the security forces opening fire on protesters at an election rally.
In the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, security forces killed eight people following protests during a by-election for a parliamentary seat; one voter was beaten by army personnel, strapped to the front of an army jeep and driven around for over five hours, seemingly as a warning to other protesters. The security forces also persisted in their use of inherently inaccurate pellet-firing shotguns during protests – blinding and otherwise injuring several people.
Human rights defenders
In India, the authorities were openly critical of human rights defenders, contributing to a climate of hostility and violence against them. Repressive laws were used to stifle freedom of expression, and journalists and press freedom came under increasing attack.
Human rights defenders in Afghanistan faced constant threats to their life and security from armed groups and state actors, and journalists faced violence and censorship.
Pakistan authorities failed to protect journalists, bloggers, and civil society and activists who faced constant harassment, intimidation, threats, smear campaigns and attacks from non-state actors. Instead, the authorities increased restrictions on the work of scores of NGOs, and subjected many activists to attacks, including torture and enforced disappearances.
In Bangladesh, the government intensified its crackdown on public debate and criticism. Media workers were harassed and prosecuted under draconian laws. The government failed to hold accountable armed groups that carried out a high-profile spate of killings of secular bloggers. Activists regularly received death threats, forcing some to leave the country.
In Maldives, restrictions on public debate intensified. The authorities harassed journalists, activists and media outlets. The government was apparently behind a relentless assault on the rule of law that compromised the judiciary’s independence.
Impunity was widespread and entrenched across South Asia. However, in Nepal, a district court sentenced three army officers to life imprisonment for the murder in 2004 of Maina Sunuwar, a 15-year-old girl; she died after being tortured in army custody during the decade-long armed conflict between Maoists and government forces that ended in 2006. The convictions were an important development in the justice system’s ability to deal with grave conflict-era abuses, and offered the first sign of justice for victims.
In India, the Supreme Court directed the Central Bureau of Investigation to investigate more than 80 alleged extrajudicial executions by police and security force personnel in the state of Manipur between 1979 and 2012, ruling that cases should not go uninvestigated merely because of the passage of time.
Enforced disappearances continued in Pakistan; the victims were at considerable risk of torture and other ill-treatment, and even death. No perpetrators were known to have been brought to justice for the hundreds or thousands of cases reported across the country in recent years.
Despite the Sri Lankan government’s 2015 pledge to deliver truth, justice and reparation to victims of the armed conflict in the country, and to deliver reforms to prevent violations, progress was slow. Impunity for enforced disappearances remained. The government stalled on its commitment to repeal the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act that enabled incommunicado and secret detention. However, the parliament passed an amended Office on Missing Persons Act, intended to assist families of the disappeared seek missing relatives.
Enforced disappearances were committed in Bangladesh; the victims often belonged to opposition political parties.
People on the move
In different parts of South Asia, refugees and migrants were denied their rights.
Bangladesh had opened its borders to more than 655,000 members of the Rohingya community fleeing a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. However, if the Rohingya refugees were forced to return to Myanmar, they would be at the mercy of the same military that drove them out and would continue to face the entrenched system of discrimination and segregation amounting to apartheid that made them so vulnerable in the first place.
The number of internally displaced people in Afghanistan rose to more than 2 million, while about 2.6 million Afghan refugees lived outside the country.
Across South Asia, dissenting voices and members of religious minorities were increasingly vulnerable to attacks from mobs. In India, several cases of lynching of Muslims were reported, sparking outrage against the wave of rising Islamophobia under the Hindu nationalist government. Demonstrations against attacks on Muslims were held in several cities, but the government did little to show that it disapproved of the violence. Indigenous Adivasi communities in India continued to be displaced by industrial projects.
In Bangladesh, attacks against religious minorities were met with near-indifference by the government. Those who sought help from the authorities after they received threats were often turned away.
Sri Lanka saw a rise in Buddhist nationalist sentiment, including attacks against Christians and Muslims. The Maldives government used religion to cloak its repressive practices, including attacks against members of the opposition and plans to reintroduce the death penalty.
Marginalized communities in Pakistan faced discrimination in law, policy and practice because of their gender, religion, nationality, sexual orientation or gender identity. Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which carry a mandatory death penalty for “blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad”, remained incompatible with a range of rights. The frequently misused laws were disproportionately applied to religious minorities and others targeted with accusations that were often false and violated international human rights law. A man was sentenced to death for allegedly posting content on Facebook deemed “blasphemous” – the harshest sentence handed down to date in Pakistan for a cyber crime-related offence.
Although India’s Supreme Court banned the practice of triple talaq (Islamic instant divorce), other court rulings undermined women’s autonomy. The Supreme Court weakened a law enacted to protect women from violence in marriage. Several rape survivors, including girls, approached the courts for permission to terminate pregnancies over 20 weeks, as required under Indian law; although courts approved some abortions, they refused others. The central government instructed states to set up permanent medical boards to decide such cases promptly.
In Pakistan, the rape of a teenage girl ordered by a so-called village council in “revenge” for a rape allegedly committed by her brother was one in a long series of horrific cases. Although people from the council were arrested for ordering the rape, the authorities failed to end impunity for sexual violence and abolish so-called village councils that prescribed crimes of sexual violence as revenge. Pakistan also continued to criminalize same-sex consensual relationships.
Violence against women and girls persisted in Afghanistan, where an increase was reported in the number of women publicly punished in the name of Shari’a law by armed groups.
Against the backdrop of a worsening political crisis, the authorities in Maldives announced that executions would resume after more than 60 years. None had been carried out by the end of the year.
Pakistan had executed hundreds of people since it lifted an informal moratorium on executions in 2014, often with serious additional concerns that those executed were denied the right to a fair trial. In violation of international law, courts imposed the death penalty on people with mental disabilities, individuals aged below 18 when the crime was committed, and those whose convictions were based on “confessions” extracted through torture or other ill-treatment.
The situation in Afghanistan continued to deteriorate, with the number of civilian casualties remaining high, a growing internal displacement crisis, and the Taliban controlling more territory than at any point since 2001. Since 2014, tens of thousands of Afghan refugees have been returned against their will from Pakistan, Iran and EU countries.
The Afghanistan government and the international community showed too little concern for the plight of civilians. When crowds protested against violence and insecurity following one of the deadliest attacks – a bombing in Kabul on 31 May that claimed the lives of more than 150 people and injured hundreds – the security forces opened fire on the crowds, killing several protesters.
In a welcome development, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court requested that a preliminary investigation be opened into crimes alleged to have been committed by all parties to the ongoing armed conflict in Afghanistan. The decision was an important step towards ensuring accountability for crimes under international law committed since 2003, and providing truth, justice and reparation for the victims.
Southeast Asia and the Pacific
Many of those taking action to demand respect for human rights and accountability for violations were demonized and criminalized, leading to shrinking civic space. Police and security forces persecuted human rights defenders. Extrajudicial killings, torture and other ill-treatment, and enforced disappearances persisted with impunity.
The Myanmar security forces’ campaign of violence against the Rohingya people in northern Rakhine State, which amounted to crimes against humanity, created a human rights and humanitarian crisis in the country and in neighbouring Bangladesh.
Lawlessness and violence increased further in the Philippines. The President’s contempt for human rights in the “war on drugs” was characterized by mass killings, mostly of people from poor and marginalized groups, including children. The scope of the killings and rampant impunity led to growing calls for an investigation at the international level. The extension of martial law in the island of Mindanao in December led to concerns that military rule could be used to justify further human rights abuses. The government attempted to reintroduce the death penalty.
In Indonesia, police killings of suspected drug dealers rose sharply.
Australia continued to pay lip service to human rights while subjecting asylum-seekers and refugees to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
Governments in Southeast Asia and the Pacific failed to uphold economic, social and cultural rights. Villagers in Laos were forced to relocate due to development projects; the right to adequate housing in Cambodia was undermined by land grabbing; and housing conditions for foreign workers in Singapore were criticized as poor by NGOs.
National elections were held in Papua New Guinea, amid allegations of corruption and heavy-handed actions by the authorities, including violence and arbitrary arrests.
Human rights defenders
Human rights defenders, peaceful political activists and religious followers were subjected to violations including arbitrary detention; they faced vaguely worded charges; and they were tried in trials that did not meet internationally defined standards of fairness. Prisoners of conscience were tortured and otherwise ill-treated.
In Cambodia, the government’s relentless crackdown on civil society and political activists intensified ahead of a general election scheduled for 2018. Human rights defenders were monitored, arrested and imprisoned; media outlets were shut; harassment of civil society through misuse of the criminal justice system escalated; and an amendment to existing legislation provided the authorities with additional powers over political parties. The judiciary was used as a political tool to silence dissent, and in a blatant act of political repression the Supreme Court ruled to dissolve the main opposition party ahead of the election.
Thailand’s military government continued its systematic suppression of dissent, preventing people from speaking or assembling peacefully, and criminalizing and targeting civil society. Dozens of human rights defenders, pro-democracy activists and others faced investigation and prosecution under draconian laws and decrees, many facing lengthy, unfair proceedings before military courts.
An ongoing crackdown on civil and political rights by Malaysia’s government included harassment, detention and prosecution of critics through the use of restrictive laws; an increase in open-ended, arbitrary travel bans that violated human rights defenders’ freedom of movement; and the arrest and investigation of Indigenous rights activists and journalists for peacefully demonstrating against abuses.
Fiji’s government used restrictive legislation to stifle the media and curtail freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Charges against staff members of the Fiji Times were changed to sedition, in a politically motivated move designed to silence one of the country’s few remaining independent media outlets.
Amendments to Singapore’s Public Order Act gave the authorities greater powers to restrict or ban public assemblies, and human rights defenders were investigated by police for taking part in peaceful protests. Charges were brought against lawyers and academics who criticized the judiciary, and restrictions placed on media freedom.
In Laos, the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly remained severely curtailed and criminal code provisions were used to imprison peaceful activists.
A crackdown on dissent in Viet Nam intensified, forcing numerous activists to flee the country.
Erosion of the space for a free press increased in Myanmar, where journalists and other media workers faced intimidation and at times arrest, detention and prosecution in connection with their work.
Impunity for deaths in custody and unnecessary or excessive use of force and firearms persisted in Malaysia. There were several deaths in custody, including that of S. Balamurugan who was reportedly beaten by police during interrogation.
In Indonesia’s Papua province there was a lack of accountability for unnecessary or excessive use of force during mass protests or other security operations. Fiji’s government failed to ensure accountability for torture and other ill-treatment of detainees by the security forces.
In Timor-Leste, victims of serious human rights violations committed during the Indonesian occupation (1975-1999) continued to demand justice and reparations.
Myanmar’s campaign of violence against the Rohingya
The security forces launched a targeted campaign of ethnic cleansing, including unlawful killings, rape and burning of villages – amounting to crimes against humanity – against the Rohingya people in northern Rakhine State. The atrocities – an unlawful and disproportionate response to attacks on security posts by an armed Rohingya group in August – created the worst refugee crisis in decades in Southeast Asia. Severe restrictions imposed by Myanmar on aid groups working in Rakhine State worsened the suffering.
More than 655,000 Rohingya people fled to Bangladesh. By the end of the year, nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees were scattered across Bangladesh's Cox’s Bazar District, including those who had fled earlier waves of violence. Those who remained in Myanmar continued to live under a regime amounting to apartheid in which their rights, including to equality before the law and freedom of movement, as well as access to health, education and work, were severely restricted.
The Myanmar security forces were primarily responsible for the violence against the Rohingya. However, the civilian administration led by Aung San Suu Kyi failed to speak out or intervene. Instead it maligned humanitarian workers, accusing them of aiding “terrorists” while denying the violations.
Despite mounting evidence of atrocities in Myanmar, the international community, including the UN Security Council, failed to take effective action or send a clear message that there would be accountability for the military’s crimes against humanity.
People on the move
Australia maintained its hardline policies of confining hundreds of people seeking asylum in offshore processing centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, and turning back those attempting to reach Australia by boat – failing in its international obligation to protect them.
Refugees and asylum-seekers remained trapped on Nauru, forcibly sent there by the Australian government – most more than four years previously – despite widespread reports of physical, psychological and sexual abuse. Several hundred people living in the offshore processing facility, including dozens of children, faced humiliation, abuse, neglect and poor physical and mental health care. More than 800 others living in the community faced serious security risks as well as inadequate access to health care, education and employment opportunities.
The Australian government withdrew services from its facility on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea at the end of October in order to force refugees to move closer to town where refugees and asylum-seekers had well-founded fears for their safety. Refugees were forcibly moved to new but unfinished facilities in November. They continued to face challenges with inadequate health care, violence in the community and no clear plans for their future.
Fiji forcibly returned people to countries where they might be at risk of serious violations.
Cambodia rejected 29 applications for refugee status by Montagnard asylum-seekers, forcibly returning them to Viet Nam where they faced possible persecution.
Australia’s justice system continued to fail Indigenous people, especially children – with high rates of incarceration and reports of abuse and deaths in custody. Ill-treatment of Indigenous children in the Northern Territory, including tear gassing, choking, restraints and solitary confinement, was exposed by leaked footage.
LGBTI people suffered discrimination in Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and Singapore. Reports of hate speech against members of Australia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and questioning (LGBTIQ) community increased, despite newly introduced penalties. In Indonesia’s Aceh province two men were publicly caned 83 times each for consensual same-sex sexual activity.
Numerous women defending human rights faced harassment, threats, imprisonment and violence.
Papua New Guinea remained one of the world’s most dangerous countries to be a woman, with increased reports of violence against women or girls, sometimes following sorcery accusations.
There were convictions under Indonesia’s blasphemy laws of people belonging to minority religious communities who had been peacefully practising their beliefs.
The Australian Parliament passed legislation to create marriage equality in December. The postal survey process chosen by the government failed to acknowledge that marriage equality is a human right and generated divisive and damaging public debate.
At least four executions took place in Malaysia. In Singapore execution by hanging continued to be carried out for murder and drug trafficking; among those executed was Malaysian national Prabagaran Srivijayan whose execution was carried out despite an appeal pending in Malaysia.
Although receiving less international attention than the situation in Rakhine State, there were similar patterns of violations by Myanmar’s military in northern Myanmar. War crimes and human rights violations were committed against civilians in Kachin and northern Shan States, including extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, torture, indiscriminate shelling, forced labour, and restrictions on humanitarian access. Ethnic armed groups committed abuses including abductions and forced recruitment. Both the army and armed groups used landmine-like weapons that harmed civilians.
In the Philippines, a five-month battle in Marawi between the military and an alliance of militants aligned with the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS), caused the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians, dozens of civilian deaths, and widespread destruction of homes and infrastructure. The militants targeted Christian civilians for extrajudicial killings and mass hostage-taking, and the armed forces detained and ill-treated fleeing civilians.
Communities living close to the giant Letpadaung copper mine in Myanmar continued to call for a halt to its operations. Thousands of families living near the mine were at risk of being forcibly evicted from their homes or farmland, and the authorities used repressive laws to harass activists and villagers.
In Indonesia there was labour exploitation on plantations owned by suppliers and subsidiaries of Wilmar International, the world’s largest palm oil trader. Abuses included women being forced to work long hours under threat of having their already meagre pay cut, children as young as eight doing hazardous physical work, and workers injured by toxic chemicals. Wilmar International’s subsequent campaign to cover up the abuses, including by intimidating staff into denying the allegations, was aided by the Indonesian government’s failure to investigate claims against the company.