The onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the human rights situation in the Asia-Pacific region. It was the first region affected by the COVID-19 pandemic as the first cases were reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. When Chinese authorities reprimanded health workers who had raised warnings about a new virus, it sparked calls for transparency not only from people in China, but also from other countries in the region. It was the first of many moments throughout the year when governments seized on the pandemic as a pretext to muzzle critical voices and unduly limit the right to freedom of expression, including the right to receive and impart information on COVID-19.
Many governments in the region enacted laws and measures to punish the spreading of “misinformation” or “false information” about COVID-19. In countries where authorities had a history of routinely abusing their powers, these laws were used to intensify existing crackdowns especially on the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly. Open debate and criticism of government responses to the pandemic were severely restricted. Governments across the region subjected many human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and members of the political opposition to attacks, including harassment, intimidation, threats, violence and arbitrary arrests for their legitimate expression of dissent and criticism of government actions.
To prevent the further spread of COVID-19, various degrees of lockdown and other limitations on movement were put in place by governments. Public assemblies were often not allowed, greatly restricting protests demanding political reforms. As the year progressed, however, people in India, Thailand and Hong Kong in particular took to the streets to oppose government oppression. Police used excessive and unnecessary force to disperse these public assemblies.
Many governments also further responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by adopting or weaponizing repressive national security or counter-terrorism laws. These laws consolidated the power that some of the governments in this region already wielded. In India, peaceful dissent was punished and restrictions on communications and key freedoms in Jammu and Kashmir continued; journalists and human rights defenders were questioned for allegedly “anti-national” activities.
While the Asia-Pacific region suffered fewer deaths than other parts of the world, the pandemic was economically devastating and further deepened pre-existing social divides. It disproportionately affected already disadvantaged groups such as migrant workers, refugees, people living in poverty, ethnic and religious minority groups, and incarcerated people.
The policies developed and imposed by many governments to address the spread of COVID-19 reflected existing patriarchal norms that discriminate against women. The lockdowns also contributed to a sharp increase in the number of cases of sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls, and governments in the region did not provide adequate resources to address this issue.
Religious and ethnic minorities were attacked across the region. The Chinese authorities pressed on with their systematic repression of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in the Xinjiang region. Muslims came under attack in India and were demonized during the pandemic and denied medical access. The Myanmar military continued to elude accountability for its crimes against the Rohingya. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, members of the minority communities were killed by armed groups.
The Asia-Pacific region was swept by natural disasters related to climate change. Countries in the region responsible for high percentages of global greenhouse gas emissions failed to set adequate reduction targets that would contribute to avoiding the worst human rights impacts of climate change.
Freedom of expression
Within days of the news of the COVID-19 outbreak, authorities in several countries across the region tried to suppress information about it and punished those who criticized government actions. The Chinese authorities sought to control information about COVID-19, both online and offline. Hundreds of keywords related to the virus were blocked and online protests demanding the right to receive and impart information on COVID-19 were deleted. Doctor Li Wenliang, one of eight people who tried to spread information about the new virus before the government disclosed the outbreak, was reprimanded by the police after he messaged colleagues to wear PPE to avoid infection. He subsequently died from the effects of COVID-19.
Several other countries in the region imposed similar restrictions on what could or could not be said about COVID-19, often on the pretext of suppressing false or inaccurate information. In April, the Indonesian authorities ordered the police to scour the internet and act against “hoax spreaders” and those who insulted the government. At least 57 people were arrested. Journalists, academics, students and activists were subjected to intimidation online, including threats of physical violence through text messages. In India and Nepal, authorities arrested or charged dozens of individuals, many of them journalists, for allegedly spreading “misinformation” or “fake news” about the pandemic.
Many individuals, including journalists, who criticized government responses regarding the COVID-19 pandemic were punished under draconian laws. In Sri Lanka, the police warned that legal action would be taken against people publishing posts on social media that were critical of the government’s COVID-19 response. Several social media commentators were arrested following the announcement. In Bangladesh, nearly 1,000 people were charged under the country’s Digital Security Act, while 353 people were detained. Among the first targets were journalists Mohiuddin Sarker and Toufiq Imroz Khalidi, both editors of online portals. The authorities arrested them in April for their reports which alleged corruption in the use of funds designated for COVID-19 relief efforts. In Pakistan, the Electronic Crimes Act was repeatedly invoked to charge or arrest journalists for critical comments made online, often accompanied by vicious and co-ordinated online attacks.
Journalists continued to face reprisals for reporting news not favoured by the government. In Myanmar, following the designation of the ethnic minority armed opposition group the Arakan Army as a “terrorist organization”, at least three journalists were prosecuted under counter-terrorism laws and the Unlawful Associations Act for contacting the group. In Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian police attacked or summoned 18 journalists for their reporting and the offices of the Kashmir Times were sealed after its editor sued the government over its shutdown of internet and telephone services in the region. In Nepal, the government introduced several new bills that threatened the right to freedom of expression, online and offline. In Singapore, even as it was being challenged in court, the authorities used the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act throughout the year to muzzle government critics and independent media outlets. In the Philippines, journalists Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos, were convicted of “cyber libel” and lawmakers denied the renewal of the franchise of ABS-CBN, one of the country’s largest independent broadcasting networks.
The right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to receive and impart information, is especially critical during a public health crisis. Governments must understand fully that access to credible, objective and evidence-based information on the COVID-19 pandemic saves lives. The role of journalists and media in providing reliable information to the public during a public health crisis is vital. They also play an important role in calling attention to matters of public interest and upholding human rights. Rather than thwarting such efforts, governments must enable, promote and protect robust and independent media in the region.
Human rights defenders
Human rights defenders, including journalists, lawyers and members of the political opposition continued to be attacked, harassed, intimidated, threatened and killed for their legitimate support for human rights, expression of dissent and criticism of government actions and corruption.
In China, human rights defenders and activists were subjected to harassment, intimidation, enforced disappearances, torture and other ill-treatment, and arbitrary and incommunicado detention. They were also often charged with vaguely worded offences such as “leaking state secrets”. Their trials were routinely held in secret and they were deprived of their right to access legal counsel. Many lawyers of these human rights defenders were denied their right to freedom of movement and were unable to meet with their clients and access case materials.
During the year, many governments in the region attempted to undermine the operations of human rights NGOs to prevent human rights defenders from continuing to expose human rights violations. Cambodian authorities used the repressive Law on Associations and NGOs (LANGO) to designate as illegal groups of human rights defenders exposing practices that caused environmental degradation. In September, Amnesty International India was forced to close its operations after Indian authorities froze the organization’s bank accounts. During the year, the organization had published reports on human rights violations that occurred during and after the riots in Delhi in February where 53 people, mostly Muslims, were killed and more than 500 injured. The riots followed incendiary speeches by government officials and lawmakers, but had not been effectively investigated months later, including documented complicity and participation in the riot by Delhi police. Amnesty International India also released a report on Jammu and Kashmir, documenting the violations that occurred there after the territory’s special status was revoked in August 2019.
In Malaysia and Afghanistan, human rights defenders who called attention to corrupt practices of government authorities faced serious challenges during the year. Cynthia Gabriel of the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism, together with other human rights defenders Thomas Fann and Sevan Doraisamy, were investigated by Malaysian authorities for raising corruption scandals linked to public officials. Human rights defenders who made allegations of corruption against officials in Helmand province in Afghanistan were hospitalized for injuries they suffered after government officials had assaulted them. Also, human rights defenders, activists, journalists and moderate religious authorities were subjected to targeted attacks and assassinations by armed groups in particular.
Governments used counter-terrorism measures against human rights defenders or labelled them as “terrorists” in countries including the Philippines and India. Philippine authorities continued the practice of “red-tagging” human rights defenders and activists as “terrorists” or sympathizers of armed communist groups. In August, Randall Echanis and Zara Alvarez were killed within a week of each other in different cities. They had both been “tagged” as “terrorists” by the government for their activism and human rights work. During the year India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA), the country’s main counter-terrorism agency, arrested several human rights defenders and raided their homes and offices. Among those arrested were seven human rights defenders who worked with marginalized groups and nine students who protested peacefully against the discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The NIA also raided the offices and homes of Kashmiri defender Khurram Parvez and three of his associates.
As the conflict in Afghanistan entered its twentieth year, human rights defenders were also wounded and killed by unknown gunmen thought to belong to armed groups, including two staff members of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, who were killed in an attack on their car in Kabul. In December, President Ghani created a joint commission for the protection of human rights defenders. This was viewed by human rights organizations as a first significant move forward. However, it appeared to be the only development in the region that promised to address the systematic patterns of violations against human rights defenders.
In Sri Lanka, the new government continued to crack down on human rights defenders, including activists, journalists, law enforcement officers and lawyers.
Governments must effectively address acts of violence against human rights defenders and perpetrators of these acts must be held accountable. It is crucial that human rights defenders are able to do their work free of fear of punishment, reprisal or intimidation so that everyone can effectively enjoy all human rights.
Right to health
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted and exacerbated gaps in equal access to health care and pre-existing social divides in the region. In North Korea, the lack of medical supplies prompted the emerging middle class to secure medicines or health services in the so-called “grey markets”. In Papua New Guinea, high rates of poverty and other chronic illnesses compounded the situation of those infected with COVID-19.
The anti-drug campaigns which emphasized criminalization and the practice of arbitrarily detaining without charge people who used drugs continued in Cambodia and the Philippines, which led to excessively overcrowded prisons that continued to violate detainees’ right to health. In the Philippines, the Supreme Court ordered the release of over 80,000 prisoners to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons. In Cambodia, the authorities revealed plans to reduce prison overcrowding, but implementation was limited.
In Malaysia, the authorities conducted immigration raids in areas with high migrant-worker populations and arrested and detained many migrants and refugees. A COVID-19 outbreak hit immigration detention centres, and over 600 people were infected.
Governments must ensure access to health facilities and services without discrimination.
Discrimination - attacks on ethnic and religious minorities
Across the region, ethnic and religious minorities continued to experience discrimination, violence and other forms of persecution at the hands of authorities.
In January, the International Court of Justice ordered the government of Myanmar to prevent genocidal acts against the Rohingya. The Myanmar authorities failed to ensure accountability for the military operations in Rakhine State during 2017, which caused over 700,000 Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh. In the context of counter-insurgency operations, the security forces continued to commit human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law against other ethnic minority groups in Rakhine, Chin, Kachin and Shan States.
In China, authorities justified their discrimination and persecution of Tibetans and of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim peoples in the region of Xinjiang on the grounds of countering “separatism”, “extremism” and “terrorism”. The Chinese authorities continued to subject Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims to arbitrary detention without trial, political indoctrination, and forced cultural assimilation. They tightened restrictions on access to Xinjiang and continued to establish mass internment camps throughout the year.
Iminjan Seydin, who had disappeared for three years, appeared in May and praised Chinese authorities in an apparently coerced testimony. Mahira Yacub, a Uyghur who worked for an insurance company, was charged with “giving material support to terrorist activity” for sending money to her parents in Australia to help them buy a house. Nagyz Muhammed, a Kazakh writer who has been detained since March 2018, was convicted in secret for “separatism” for a dinner he had with friends on Kazakhstan Independence Day nearly a decade ago.
Uyghurs also faced pressure outside of China. Chinese embassies and agents continued to harass and intimidate people who had left the country and gone into exile. Chinese security agents harassed Uyghurs abroad through messaging apps, demanding their ID numbers, locations of residence and other details. Some received phone calls from the Chinese security police, asking them to spy on Uyghur diaspora communities.
In Inner Mongolia, protests erupted over a new language policy for schools that would change the teaching medium for some classes from Mongolian to Mandarin Chinese. Hundreds of people who protested – students, parents, teachers, pregnant women, children – were reportedly arrested for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. Hu Baolong, a human rights lawyer who spoke out during the protests, was reportedly arrested on charges of “leaking state secrets overseas”.
In some countries, ethnic and religious minority groups suffered the brunt of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. India’s Muslims were among those who were further marginalized. After a Muslim group, the Tablighi Jamaat, was accused of spreading the virus at a public gathering, many Muslims were denied access to medical services and essential commodities. On social media, there were calls to boycott Muslim businesses. In Sri Lanka, the authorities prevented Muslims from burying people who had died as a result of COVID-19 according to religious rites and forcibly cremated the bodies instead. The Sri Lankan government reportedly racially profiled the country’s Muslim community by identifying it as a source of higher risk during the pandemic.
In Afghanistan, at least 25 people were killed when the armed group calling itself “Islamic State” attacked one of the few Sikh temples in the country. The country’s mainly Shi’a Hazara community also suffered many attacks from armed groups, including an October bombing of a school that killed 30 people, mostly children, in Kabul.
In Pakistan, the Ahmadiyya community was subjected to attacks, social and economic boycotts and at least five targeted killings. During the Muslim holy month of Muharram, hate preachers incited violence against the country’s Shi’a minority as nearly 40 blasphemy cases were filed against Shi’a clerics. In July, bowing to pressure from politicians, some media outlets and clerics, the Pakistani authorities halted the construction of a Hindu temple in the capital, Islamabad, denying the community its right to freedom of religion and belief. The Pakistani government failed to take effective action against the forced conversions to Islam of women and girls from Hindu and Christian communities.
Governments must ensure that the human rights of ethnic and religious minorities are protected. Moreover, they must facilitate equal access to health care for all minority groups and take steps to end systemic discrimination against them.
Women and girls
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted and exacerbated the existing inequalities between men and women in the region. Government responses to the pandemic reflected patriarchal norms and gender stereotypes that undervalue women.
In the informal sector, where women were typically paid less than men, thousands of women were suddenly deprived of their livelihoods and forced to assume additional care responsibilities at home, such as homeschooling children or caring for sick relatives. In previous years, women across the Asia-Pacific region carried out more than four times as much unpaid work at home than men. Those numbers rose sharply during the pandemic.
Women also constituted the majority of essential workers during the pandemic, including doctors, nurses, sanitation workers and other roles. In Pakistan, when violence against health workers erupted in May, a group of women health workers were forced to lock themselves in a room for their own protection as disgruntled relatives of patients vandalized the hospital they were working in.
Migrant domestic workers in the Gulf, who overwhelmingly come from the Asia-Pacific region, lost their jobs and were forced to return home at the onset of the pandemic. In most of the national financial stimulus packages in the region, there was no special provision for the needs of these women, including social protections.
Many governments in the region did not classify services for women as essential and that could continue during lockdowns, including those that are aimed to support or assist women experiencing sexual or gender-based violence. Women and girls who had already been living with abusive partners or family members were at further risk of violence. The number of cases of domestic violence and intimate partner violence rose sharply across the region. In Japan, there were 13,000 cases reported in April alone – a 29% increase on the same month in 2019.
Women continued to be subjected to vicious misogynistic attacks. In Indonesia, the targets of digital attacks included feminist news outlets. One journalist’s account was hacked, and she was harassed by attackers who sent pornographic pictures and demeaning statements about women. In South Korea, the pervasiveness of online violence against women and girls became increasingly apparent with the arrests of the perpetrators of digital sex crimes, who had blackmailed more than 70 women and girls into sharing sexually exploitative videos and photographs that the perpetrators then circulated through messaging apps.
In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen led a public attack on women’s right to freedom of expression, invoking arbitrary notions of “tradition” and “culture” to justify the policing of women’s bodies and choices. In January, he ordered the police to take action against women advertising products on Facebook in purportedly “revealing” clothes. Within days, a Facebook vendor was arrested and charged with producing “pornography” for the clothes she wore. The assault on women’s rights in Cambodia intensified in June, when the government sought to turn these penalties into law, criminalizing the wearing of clothes that were deemed “too short” or “too see-through”. The draft law triggered online protests from many women and girls.
Violence against women and impunity for these crimes persisted in several countries. In Papua New Guinea, allegations of sorcery put women at a heightened risk of violence. In Afghanistan, women continued to face discrimination and gender-based violence, especially in Taliban-controlled areas, where violent “punishments” were meted out for perceived transgressions of the armed group’s interpretations of Islamic law. Over 100 murder cases related to violence against women were reported in Afghanistan during the year, and these highlighted the persistent failure of the government to investigate these murders or tackle violence against women effectively. In Fiji, a former rugby captain convicted of rape and sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment was allowed to resume training after serving less than a year of his sentence.
In Pakistan, an annual march on International Women’s Day came under sustained attack, first from the courts, when there was an attempt to ban the march, and then on the day, when a religious group attacked marchers in Islamabad with rocks. The police failed to protect the protesters. In September, the gang rape of a woman on a national highway sparked national outrage, with calls for the resignation of the top provincial police officer and harsher punishments for rapists. In December, the government passed an ordinance that sought to speed up trials for rape and punish perpetrators with forced chemical castration. Amnesty International expressed its concern that forced chemical castration violates Pakistan’s international and constitutional obligations to prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.
In India and Nepal, the rapes of Dalit women sparked fury. In May, a 12-year-old Dalit girl was forcibly married to her alleged rapist, a man from a dominant caste, in Nepal’s Rupandehi district. In September, another 12-year-old Dalit girl was raped and killed in Bajhang district, allegedly by a man who had evaded prosecution for another rape of a 14-year-old girl a month before. Also in September, a Dalit woman was raped and murdered by a group of men from the dominant caste in Hathras, in India’s Uttar Pradesh state. Her body was cremated by the police without the consent of the family. The accused men were only arrested after protests erupted across the country demanding justice and accountability.
To address the various problems of violence against women, steps were taken in South Korea, where the government passed laws to enhance the protection of women and girls from sexual exploitation and abuse. The National Assembly increased punishments for digital sex crimes. The age of consent was also raised from 13 to 16, without discrimination, and the statute of limitations was removed for crimes involving the sexual exploitation of children.
In developing their post-pandemic response and recovery, governments must give priority to advancing gender equality and eliminating gender-based violence and harmful gender stereotypes. Women must also be involved in all stages of legislative, policy and budgetary decision-making processes in developing the post-pandemic response and recovery plans of governments in the region.
Failure to prevent climate change
The Asia-Pacific region is particularly vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis. In 2020, a series of climate shocks affected human rights in the region. India was severely hit by super-typhoon Amphan, while Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar suffered widespread flooding that left millions displaced. Australia experienced unprecedented bushfires which caused displacement and air pollution.
Despite the severity of the impacts, countries in the region most responsible for global emissions failed to set adequate reduction targets that would contribute to avoiding the worst human rights impacts of climate change. Australia, which became the largest fossil fuel exporter in the world, failed to set a more ambitious emission reduction target for 2030 or commit to reach net-zero emission in the long-term. While Japan and South Korea announced carbon neutrality targets for 2050 – and China for 2060 – they failed to demonstrate that they were taking all feasible steps to reach zero carbon emissions before this date as they are required to do in order to refrain from causing significant harm to the human rights of people in and outside of their countries.
Governments must urgently adopt and implement emission reduction targets and strategies that protect human rights from the climate crisis and ensure a just and human rights-consistent transition to a zero-carbon economy and resilient society.