Repressive measures as well as room for optimism in East Asia

The human rights year in the East Asia region was marked by troubling and repressive measures such as shrinking space for civil society, renewed crackdowns on lawyers and other human rights defenders, and pessimism regarding the death penalty. By contrast, however, activism against sexual harassment and positive signs around recognition of same-sex relationships in the region gave some cause for optimism as we move into 2019.

Mass detentions

Among the year’s most disturbing developments has been the mass detention of Uighurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Up to one million people have been sent for political “re-education”, during which they are held indefinitely without a trial, access to lawyers or the right to challenge their detentions. This government “counter-extremism” campaign combines intrusive surveillance, arbitrary detentions and forced indoctrination, and has targeted people who have travelled or have contacts abroad, show signs of religious or cultural affiliation or otherwise fall under suspicion of being “untrustworthy”. Family members have been kept in the dark about the fate of their loved ones, leaving them desperate for answers but afraid to speak up in case they too become targets.

The alarming escalation of China’s oppression of ethnic minority populations was a focus of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The Committee’s August review of China also highlighted the marginalization of ethnic language and culture, and stressed how broad and vague legal definitions of “terrorism”, “extremism” and “separatism” were stifling and punishing peaceful actions by Uighurs, Tibetans and others. In May, for example, Tibetan language activist Tashi Wangchuk was sentenced to five years in prison on spurious charges of “inciting separatism”.

Ni Yulan, a housing rights activist in China who was forcibly evicted in 2017

Thank you to those of you who wrote for me, your generous support has not only helped me but also advanced China’s human rights.

Peace talks

Another major development in the region has been the ongoing peace talks between North and South Korea, the outcome of which could have significant implications for human rights on the Korean peninsula. For decades, leaders on both sides have used national security as an excuse to justify arbitrary restrictions on rights to freedom of expression and opinion, thought and movement. De-escalation of conflict between the two sides might facilitate more regular contacts between families who have been separated and allow for an easing of severe restrictions in North Korea on access to information and communications.

The absence of human rights from the agenda of talks between South Korea’s Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has been deeply troubling, despite their efforts to reduce tensions and create positive opportunities. As talks continue, Kim Jong-un and other North Korean leaders must be held accountable for the catastrophic human rights situation in that country, some of which may amount to crimes against humanity as found by a UN commission in 2014.

In China, the year has seen little change in terms of repression of human rights defenders. More than three years after the government launched a broad crackdown against human rights lawyers and other activists, the fates of lawyers Wang Quanzhang, Yu Wensheng and Gao Zhisheng are unknown. There are serious concerns for the wellbeing of imprisoned lawyer Jiang Tianyong and activist Dong Guangping, and human rights defenders Huang Qi and Zhen Jianghua are facing long prison terms. All are at risk of torture and other ill-treatment.

Sexual harassment challenged

Despite shrinking space for civil society in China, there have been glimmers of optimism. Strong support for #MeToo activism against sexual harassment has emerged on Chinese campuses and online. One of the movement’s leading advocates, Yue Xin, has also led a student campaign to support efforts by striking factory workers to form their own trade union. When the government has tried to silence or punish these activists, their efforts have been met with a vocal response online.

Hong Kong has also increasingly felt the effects of shrinking space for civil society, as the government continues to use vaguely defined charges to pursue political prosecutions of protesters from 2014’s Umbrella Movement. This, as well as recent decisions to use “national security” grounds to ban a pro-independence political party and retaliate against people for discussing independence for Hong Kong, are creating a chilling effect on the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.

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There are few signs of progress in the region towards ending capital punishment. China continues to hide the true extent of its use of the death penalty behind claims of “state secrecy”. In Mongolia, the President intends to propose legislation to restore the death penalty, which the country’s parliament abolished in 2017. In July, Japan carried out an unprecedented execution spree, hanging 13 people for their involvement in the deadly 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway and other illegal activities. It was feared that some of those executed may have had requests for retrial pending, in violation of their right to a fair trial. In August, Taiwan carried out its first execution since 2016, despite

President Tsai Ing-wen stating clearly when she took office that her government intended to abolish the death penalty.

This year, hundreds of Yemeni men, women and children fleeing the devastating war and humanitarian crisis at home arrived on the South Korean island of Jeju, where tourists from most countries can enter without a visa. Many in South Korea, however, have responded with fear and hostility. There has been a marked increase in xenophobic rhetoric and even violence, as members of the public react to fear around cultural difference and economic impacts. Unlike other asylum-seekers who arrive in other parts of the country, the Yemenis were barred from leaving the island for months while the South Korean government processed their claims, limiting their opportunities to make new lives for themselves. By October, some 300 Yemeni asylum-seekers had been granted “humanitarian stay” status, meaning they can travel to other parts of South Korea but will have to leave the country when the war in Yemen ends.

Signs of hope

East Asia has seen more positive developments in recognizing the rights of same-sex couples. In July, Hong Kong’s top court issued a landmark ruling confirming that denial of partnership rights for same-sex couples can be discriminatory – despite a continued lack of recognition for marriage equality there. In Japan, more municipalities are adopting written instruments to recognize same-sex partnerships, and a growing number of Japanese companies are extending equal benefits to same-sex couples. Progress for LGBTI people in the region is not without its challenges and much more needs to be done to address discrimination and stigma; however, there are growing signs of broader social acceptance for equal rights and a rejection of those trying to reverse the progress and stir up intolerance. Attention was focused on the results of competing referendums in Taiwan later in 2018 which could determine whether the government offers only watered-down legal protection to same-sex couples or becomes the first in Asia to recognize marriage equality.