Op-ed: A flicker of hope for human rights in South Asia

Amid the doom and gloom of human rights work in the region, a few success stories this year give me hope.

by Yamini Mishra, South Asia Regional Director at Amnesty International

A cursory look at the human rights situation in South Asia can make one feel that the arc of the moral universe in the region has been too long and does not seem to be bending towards justice. And yet, as people committed to human rights, we can’t let doom and gloom be our defining narrative. We must keep hope close to our hearts in terrain that is so hostile to human rights work.

Indeed, while 2022 has seen a great number of violations of human rights across South Asia, there have also been positive developments that need to be acknowledged and celebrated.

We must keep hope close to our hearts in terrain that is so hostile to human rights work.

Yamini Mishra, South Asia Regional Director at Amnesty International

The use of draconian anti-terror laws in the region to put behind bars and silence activists, journalists and almost anyone who dares to speak up against injustice has become an easy and replicable template across the region. But our collective struggle for freedom and justice did ensure liberty for at least some of those critical voices.

In Sri Lanka, the authorities have been using legislation from 1979 called the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to intimidate critics. But in February, after spending almost two years in pre-trial detention, Hejaaz Hizbullah, a Sri Lankan lawyer and a vocal advocate for minority rights who was detained under the PTA, was granted bail. In August, Mohamed Imran, a computer engineering student, was released after a long, unjust detention under the PTA; a month later Divaniya Mukunthan, the director of a Tamil YouTube channel, was also let go.

During the anti-government protests earlier this year, the Sri Lankan government once again used this draconian legislation to quash dissent, along with excessive force and mass arrests. But after deciding not to renew the state of emergency imposed due to the upheaval, the authorities also released most protesters who were arbitrarily detained. Student leader Galwewa Siridhamma Thero who was arrested under the PTA got bail earlier this month.

In India, the authorities have been using the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) to hold activists in jail without a trial. But there were at least two cases this year with positive developments. Poet and radical thinker Varavara Rao, who was detained under the UAPA in 2018, was granted bail from the Supreme Court. Prominent intellectual and scholar Anand Teltumbde, who was arrested in 2020 also on UAPA charges, was also given bail.

Another encouraging development came from the Supreme Court of India after, in May, it suspended the country’s colonial-era sedition law, which has also been used to suppress dissent. This was a big step in the right direction, particularly for the protection of freedom of expression. The court also passed landmark orders affirming the right of sex workers to dignified life and the right to abortion for every pregnant person until the 24th week, notwithstanding their marital status.

While the Indian judiciary has sometimes failed to uphold human rights over these past few years, such developments make me think that not everything is lost. They also give me hope that the Indian courts can also step up and defend rights, particularly those of persecuted minorities.

The persecution of minorities has been a dominant trend across the region, not just in India. In Pakistan, blasphemy laws have contributed to violence against ethnic and religious groups and several deaths were reported. However, in a positive move, the Supreme Court of Pakistan called on the authorities to ensure due process in the administration of justice in relation to blasphemy cases. This, of course, is not enough and such legislation needs to be abolished altogether.

In the Maldives, which also has strict blasphemy laws, activist Mohamed Rusthum Mujuthaba was arrested for posting content critical of religion on social media and for possession of “obscene material”. He was released from detention in August and relieved from further imprisonment.

In Bangladesh, teenager Dipti Rani Das, who was arrested for “hurting religious sentiment” was released after spending 16 months in detention.

There have also been modest gains for women’s rights in the region, too. In Nepal, activists secured reforms to strengthen the rights of survivors of gender-based violence. As a result of their campaigning, the government extended the restrictive statute of limitation on rape and other forms of sexual violence from one year to up to three years. This is a small win and we need to continue advocating until the statute of limitations is done away with.

Afghanistan has seen perhaps the most disheartening human rights crisis in the region. One year of Taliban rule has been marked by gender persecution of the worst kind, as well as persecution of minorities, including torture and enforced disappearances of Hazara people and individuals associated with the former Afghan government.

But at times even the Taliban has given in after people stood up for justice. Professor Faizullah Jalal, a prominent leader and university lecturer in Afghanistan, was released after being detained for pointing out the Taliban’s failure to address the humanitarian catastrophe in the country. His release came after months of campaigning by Amnesty International and many others.

Another positive development came in October, when the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced that investigations into war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the armed conflict in Afghanistan will resume. This has restored some hope for long-awaited justice. The ICC Prosecutor must now seize this opportunity to urgently commence investigations into all parties to the conflict and ensure justice and reparations for the victims of these heinous crimes.

While 2022 has seen no dearth of human rights violations in vast tracts of South Asia, and as widespread repression persists, there is definitely a light that continues to shine.

Let’s keep the candle of human rights burning.

Yamini Mishra

It burns in every Afghan woman who continues to protest and claim her space in what is probably one of the most hostile environments for women. It burns in Bilkis Bano who continues to demand justice for the 2002 Gujarat riots and fights the premature release of her rapists in India. It burns in activist Shahnewaz Chowdhury who faces prison in Bangladesh for speaking up about pollution and deaths at a coal plant. It burns in the resilience that protesters in Sri Lanka have shown to claim a better future for themselves and for their country.

South Asia has a history of strong people’s movements fighting against injustice, so let’s celebrate them and support them in their quest to secure human rights for all. Let’s keep the candle of human rights burning.

As the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”

Yamini Mishra

Regional Director for South Asia at Amnesty International

Originally published on International Human Rights day, December 10, 2022 at Al Jazeera:

A flicker of hope for human rights in South Asia | Opinions | Al Jazeera