Asia and the Pacific Regional Overview

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Asia And The Pacific 2023

There were modest gains for the rights of women and LGBTI people in several countries; a new law criminalizing torture and enforced disappearance was adopted in Thailand; and the mandatory death penalty was abolished in Malaysia. Yet, overall, the outlook for human rights in the Asia-Pacific region remained bleak.

Escalating armed conflict in Myanmar resulted in yet more civilian deaths and displacement. In Afghanistan, the Taliban intensified their repression especially against women and girls. A growing intolerance of dissent was evident throughout much of the region as restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association tightened in multiple countries and territories. Critics of government policies and actions, including human rights defenders, political activists and journalists, were arbitrarily arrested and detained; protests against injustice were often met with unlawful, sometimes lethal, force.

Long-standing patterns of discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities and so-called lower castes, women and girls, LGBTI people and Indigenous Peoples persisted. People belonging to these and other marginalized groups were particularly hard hit in countries suffering economic crises. They were also the first to suffer the often-deadly consequence of climate-change induced weather events, yet governments across the region failed to take effective action to curb carbon emissions or to put in place effective protection and adaptation measures.

Freedom of expression

The right to freedom of expression remained under threat as many governments intensified crackdowns on media, human rights defenders, opposition parties, government critics and others.

Several countries maintained or intensified already extreme restrictions. In Afghanistan, journalists and other media workers were among those subjected to harassment and arbitrary detention, and more media outlets were shut down or were forced to close their doors. In Myanmar, journalists were among those sentenced to long terms of imprisonment in unfair trials. In North Korea, there was no let-up in the government’s total control over civic space with harsh penalties imposed on anyone who criticized the government or engaged in “reactionary” ideology.

Elsewhere, government efforts to silence critical voices took multiple forms. New laws or regulations restricting the rights to freedom of expression came into force in Bangladesh, China, India, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and Singapore. The new government in Fiji repealed a law limiting media freedoms, but other restrictive legislation remained.

In Cambodia, the licence of one of the few remaining independent media outlets was revoked. The Indian government weaponized the central financial and investigation agencies to carry out raids on and suspend the licences of media outlets and human rights organizations. Bhutan, where civil servants are barred from sharing information of public interest with the media, slipped down global press freedom rankings.

Censorship and surveillance technologies were increasingly used to suppress dissent. In China, new guidelines placed further restrictions on social media users, while social media companies required certain users to disclose their identity, raising concerns about the right to privacy. In Hong Kong, the draconian National Security Law and colonial-era sedition law were used to censor books, songs, social media and other on- and offline content. In Viet Nam, Amnesty International found that state agents, or persons acting on their behalf, were likely behind a campaign targeting dozens of social media accounts using Predator spyware, while the Thai government failed to address concerns about its use of Pegasus spyware against human rights defenders, politicians and civil society activists.

Judicial harassment of those who shared information or expressed views critical of or deemed sensitive by governments was also commonplace. Journalists and activists in Viet Nam were prosecuted and imprisoned for “disseminating propaganda against the state”. In the Maldives, journalists were arrested for reporting on protests and other events. In Malaysia, the government not only failed to act on pledges to repeal laws restricting the rights to freedom of expression, but continued to use them to investigate film makers and book editors among others. In Thailand, authorities persisted in applying laws restricting online communication to prosecute critics, while government critics in the Philippines continued to face spurious charges. Peaceful calls for Papuan independence remained an imprisonable offence in Indonesia. In Laos, long-standing patterns of intimidation, arbitrary detention as well as unlawful killing, and enforced disappearance against human rights defenders continued. Likewise in Pakistan, journalists, human rights defenders and critics of the government and military establishment were among those subjected to arbitrary arrest and enforced disappearance.

There were signs that transnational repression of dissent was becoming entrenched. Chinese and Hong Kong authorities pursued activists, including nationals who had fled abroad, issuing arrest warrants, offering financial rewards and pressuring other countries to repatriate them. Two human rights defenders returned from Laos were subsequently detained in China. The Viet Nam authorities were implicated in the abduction from Thailand of a prominent YouTuber, while a Laotian human rights defender was shot dead in Thailand.

Governments must repeal all laws and regulations that criminalize or otherwise restrict legitimate expression, end all unjustified investigations or prosecutions related to the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression, and respect media freedoms.

Freedom of peaceful assembly and association

With the exception of Fiji, where there were signs of greater tolerance, governments across the region sought to further curtail the right to peaceful assembly.

In Thailand criminal charges had been brought against nearly 2,000 people by the end of the year in connection with their participation in protests for political and social reform which began in 2020. The number of people detained for taking part in events to commemorate victims of an apartment block fire in Urumqi, China, in 2022 and associated protests against Covid-19 restrictions will probably never be known, but there were reports of ongoing harassment of participants and a Uyghur student was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for posting a video of the protests on social media. In Malaysia and Mongolia, authorities continued to use repressive laws to restrict the right to peaceful protest, while in South Korea, the increasingly hard line against “illegal” protests set the scene for extortionate claims for damages by a state-owned company against disability rights campaigners. In Myanmar, dozens of people were arrested for wearing flowers to mark the birthday of the imprisoned former State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.

Unlawful use of force leading to injuries and sometimes deaths remained common. In Afghanistan, the Taliban reportedly used firearms, water cannons and stun guns to disperse demonstrations including protests in support of women’s rights, among others. Authorities in both Pakistan and Sri Lanka sought to ban protests and frequently resorted to excessive and other unlawful force against protesters ‒ deaths and many injuries resulted in both countries. In Bangladesh, police used rubber bullets, live rounds and tear gas against opposition-led protests resulting in at least one death. Thousands of people were arrested. Security forces also used unlawful force against protesters in Indonesia, the Maldives and Nepal.

Restrictions on the rights to freedom of association also deepened in several countries. In Cambodia, the only opposition party was disqualified from taking part in elections and a leading opposition politician sentenced to 27 years’ imprisonment. In the Philippines, human rights and humanitarian organizations were among those accused of links to banned communist groups or “red-tagged”, leaving their members vulnerable to trumped-up charges, unlawful killing and other human rights violations. In South Korea, trade unions faced an increasingly hostile environment and dozens of labour activists were placed under criminal investigation.

Governments must respect and facilitate the exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. The work of human rights defenders must be respected and protected and a safe and enabling environment for their work ensured.

Arbitrary arrests and detentions

Human rights defenders, political and environmental activists and others were arbitrarily arrested and detained for challenging government policies and actions or on the basis of their ethnic, religious or other identity.

In China, arbitrary detention and unfair trials of Uyghurs and people from other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region continued. In Myanmar, more than 20,000 people remained in detention for opposing the 2021 military coup and grossly unfair trials continued.

In Pakistan, the authorities used the Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance and the vaguely worded Anti-Terrorism Act to arbitrarily detain over 4,000 people involved in protests following the arrest of former prime minister Imran Khan in May. Another 103 civilians, including political leaders and activists, were put on trial in military courts. Although the courts in India granted bail or quashed detention orders of several arbitrarily detained journalists in Jammu and Kashmir, human rights defenders there and elsewhere in the country continued to be held without trial, often for years.

In Mongolia, inadequate procedural guarantees resulted in high numbers of arrests without warrants.

Governments must end all arbitrary arrests and detention of government critics and others and immediately release anyone detained solely for the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association or other human rights.

Impunity and the right to justice

Impunity remained widespread and victims were routinely denied their rights to justice, truth and reparation.

Although the decision by the International Criminal Court to resume investigations in the Philippines offered some hope for families of the countless victims of unlawful killings during the ongoing “war on drugs”, accountability for serious human rights violations there remained almost completely elusive. In Thailand, impunity prevailed for unlawful killings by state security forces. The governments of Sri Lanka and Nepal again failed to make significant progress towards delivering justice, truth and reparations to the tens of thousands of victims of crimes under international law and other grave human rights violations during the respective internal armed conflicts.

Governments must address impunity by undertaking thorough, independent, impartial, investigations into crimes under international law and other serious human rights abuses, and by bringing suspected perpetrators to justice in fair trials. Full cooperation should be extended to international investigations and justice processes and reparations provided for historical human rights abuses.

Violations of international humanitarian law

Violations of international humanitarian law persisted in Myanmar, where indiscriminate and targeted air and ground attacks by the military and associated militias spread across the country resulting in over 1,000 civilian deaths. There were also reports of attacks by armed opposition groups on civilians linked to Myanmar’s military authorities. In the context of ongoing armed resistance to the Taliban in Afghanistan’s Panjshir province, there was new evidence of enforced collective punishments against the civilian population and extrajudicial executions of captured fighters from the National Resistance Front, while attacks by armed groups, primarily the Islamic State of Khorasan Province, resulted in thousands of casualties.

All parties to armed conflicts must abide by international humanitarian law, including by ending indiscriminate or direct attacks against civilians or civilian infrastructure.

Economic, social and cultural rights

Several countries remained mired in serious economic crises. Skyrocketing inflation in Laos and Pakistan and resulting cost of living hikes impacted the most vulnerable to marginalization. In Sri Lanka, where over a quarter of the population risked falling below the poverty line, access to food, healthcare and other basic needs became a daily challenge, particularly for daily wage earners and Malaiyaha Tamils. The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan deepened, leading to fears of a further increase in the already high numbers of people reliant on humanitarian aid – yet the humanitarian response plan remained woefully underfunded.

In Papua New Guinea, chronic under-resourcing of the health system meant that much of the population could not access adequate healthcare. Food insecurity persisted in North Korea and healthcare including essential medicines and vaccines were often unavailable.

Forced evictions and house demolitions left thousands of people homeless and destitute or at risk thereof. In Cambodia, the process of forcibly evicting 10,000 families from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Angkor continued. Close to 300,000 people were made homeless in India following the demolition of informal settlements in Delhi ahead of the G20 Summit, and demolitions of largely Muslim homes, businesses and places of worship continued in punishment for communal violence. In Indonesia, authorities responded with excessive force to communities protesting against planned evictions and infrastructure development projects, while in Laos the construction of a dam threatened to displace thousands of villagers, without adequate arrangements for compensation.

Cultural and linguistic rights and the right to education for ethnic minorities across China, were undermined by government policies including assimilationist policies targeting Tibetan and Uyghur children.

Governments should ensure that economic, social and cultural rights are protected and that policies do not compound the violations of rights to food, health, and livelihood.

Corporate accountability

Corporate accountability for human rights abuses too often remained elusive. However, Amnesty International’s research on Myanmar contributed to positive developments, with several companies linked to the supply of aviation fuel that was used by the Myanmar military in air strikes against civilians ceasing their involvement. Also, the EU, the UK, the USA and other countries passed targeted sanctions against some of these companies.

Governments must put in place legislation that requires corporate actors to conduct human rights due diligence to ensure that their operations and those of their partners do not cause or contribute to human rights abuses, and that any harm resulting from their operations is remedied.

Freedom of religion and belief

Freedom of religion or belief remained under threat, especially in South Asia. In India, hundreds of incidents of violence and intimidation of Muslims were recorded. Violence against religious minorities was also widespread in Pakistan, where Ahmadi grave sites were desecrated, and allegations of blasphemy used to target minorities including to justify attacks against over 20 churches in a single day. In Afghanistan, religious minorities including Shia’s and Hazara Shia’s, Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, Ahmadiyya and Ismailis faced extreme discrimination under the Taliban, who also ensured formal religious teaching was exclusively based on the Sunni sect of Islam.

Governments must take effective measures, including legal and policy reforms where required, to fully protect, promote and guarantee freedom of religion or belief without discrimination.

Women’s and girls’ rights

Legal protections against sexual violence were strengthened in Japan where the definition of rape under criminal law was extended to include non-consensual sex. In Fiji, legal obstacles to participation in elections for married women were removed.

But the reality for many women and girls in the region remained one of systemic discrimination and violence.

High numbers of incidents of harassment and violence including rape and other sexual violence, continued to be reported particularly in South Asia, and accountability was rare. In India, there was particular concern about the high number of incidents of sexual violence against Dalits, Adivasi and Kuki women by members of dominant castes.

Discrimination took many forms. In Afghanistan, the ever more extreme restrictions on women’s and girls’ rights and the scale of human rights violations against them reached the level of the crime against humanity of gender persecution. In Nepal, women continued to be denied equal citizenship rights. In Bhutan, Fiji, Japan and elsewhere women remained significantly under-represented in public office and the work force.

Governments must accelerate efforts to uphold and promote women’s and girls’ rights, end gender and intersectional discrimination against women and girls and prevent and prosecute gender-based violence.

LGBTI people’s rights

There was both progress in and setbacks to LGBTI rights. In Taiwan, authorities recognized the right of most transnational same-sex couples to marry and on 21 December, Thai lawmakers began a process of legalizing same-sex marriages. Court rulings in Hong Kong, Nepal and South Korea gave greater recognition to the rights of same-sex couples and/or transgender people. However, in South Korea the Constitutional Court upheld the criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual relations within the Korean military. In addition, governments typically reacted by appealing against rights-affirming judgments and dragging their feet on implementation.

The precarious position of LGBTI individuals and groups was also illustrated in China, where a prominent LGBTI organization was forced to close in the face of the government’s ongoing anti-LGBTI campaign. In Pakistan, political and Islamist groups led a disinformation campaign that put existing legal protections for transgender (Khawaja Sara) people at risk and resulted in increased violence against and harassment of transgender and gender diverse people. In India, the Supreme Court refused to grant legal recognition to same-sex marriage. In Malaysia, books and other materials considered to promote LGBTI lifestyles were banned and in Mongolia a pro-LGBTI march was banned.

Governments should repeal laws and policies that discriminate against LGBTI people, including by decriminalizing consensual same-sex sexual relations, and should recognize same-sex marriage, promote and protect LGBTI people’s rights and enable them to live in safety and dignity.

Indigenous Peoples’ rights and ethnic and caste-based discrimination

Discrimination against Indigenous Peoples and on the basis of ethnicity and caste remained widespread. In countries including Cambodia, Indonesia and Malaysia, Indigenous Peoples’ rights were ignored as commercial exploitation of their lands threatened their lives and livelihoods. Consultations with affected communities, where they occurred, were often superficial and Indigenous Peoples’ activists were vulnerable to human rights abuses. In the Philippines, two Indigenous environmental protection activists were forcibly disappeared and Indigenous Peoples’ rights leaders designated as terrorists.

An historic opportunity to progress the rights of First Nations People in Australia was lost with the rejection in a national referendum of a proposal to establish an Indigenous “Voice” that would have enabled them to make direct representations to parliament. In New Zealand, Māori people continued to experience discrimination and marginalization including in the criminal justice system where they continued to be significantly over-represented. In India, caste-based discrimination continued unabated.

Governments must ensure effective access to justice to victims of ethnic and caste-based discrimination, end impunity for human rights abuses against Dalits, Indigenous Peoples and other at-risk groups, and prioritize policies and programmes to eliminate structural discrimination including in the criminal justice system.

Torture and other ill-treatment

The criminalization of torture and enforced disappearances in Thailand underscored the power of concerted campaigning by victims and human rights defenders, but there remained much to be done there and elsewhere to prevent torture and other forms of ill-treatment.

Multiple instances of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees were reported across the region, and deaths in custody were all too common. At least 94 detainees died in custody during the year in Bangladesh and at least 13 in Malaysia. The Nepali authorities failed to hold anyone accountable for the many credible allegations of torture and other ill-treatment. In Afghanistan, torture of detainees was reportedly widespread and public corporal punishment amounting to torture or other ill-treatment was used. The Indonesian military was responsible for the arbitrary detention, torture and deaths in custody of Indigenous Papuan civilians, including children.

Governments must prohibit and criminalize torture and other acts of ill-treatment and take effective measures to protect and prevent abuse of marginalized and at-risk groups. Where they occur, states must investigate allegations, hold those responsible to account and provide victims with timely remedy.

Right to a healthy environment

Devastating floods, soaring temperatures and deadly typhoons highlighted the vulnerability of the region to events induced by climate change. Yet measures to reduce carbon emissions and for preparedness and adaptation remained largely inadequate. As ever, the poorest and most marginalized suffered the gravest consequences for these failures.

The high death toll among ethnic Rohingya from a cyclone that hit Myanmar in May was largely attributable to the appalling conditions in which they have lived since being forcibly displaced in 2012. In India, almost 200 deaths were recorded in floods in the Himalayan region and heatwaves in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar states. Pakistan continued to experience searing climate change-induced heatwaves that severely impacted health, particularly of those living in poverty and informal sector workers.

Mitigation efforts, starting with emissions targets set by many states, including the biggest emitters, remained insufficient to keep the increase in average global temperatures below 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels. Policies and actions were often inconsistent with meeting targets to which states had committed. For example, Taiwan adopted legislation requiring the government to reduce emissions, but there was no timeline for phasing out fossil fuels and oil exploration continued.

There was little sign of reducing reliance on coal in the region’s energy systems. On the contrary, new coal-fired plants and coal mining projects continued to be authorized by governments in Australia, China, Indonesia and South Korea, often in the face of strong domestic opposition. Japan was the only industrialized country in the world not to have committed to phasing out the use of coal in electricity production.

States repeatedly ignored the impact of extractive industries on the environment and on Indigenous Peoples and other affected communities. In Mongolia for example, there was still insufficient action to address the impact of mining operations in the Gobi region on the health and livelihoods of herder communities. In Papua New Guinea, the government issued a licence to reopen a gold mining operation previously associated with serious human rights abuses and environmental damage, despite these not being adequately addressed by the company involved.

Industrialized and other high-emitting countries in the region must take the lead in climate mitigation, including by stopping the expansion of fossil fuel production and subsidies, and ensure that their climate policies are consistent with keeping global warming within 1.5°C. Governments must increase investment in disaster preparedness and adaptation and prioritize the protection of marginalized and other groups disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis.

Refugees’ and migrants’ rights and human trafficking

The indefinite detention of refugees and asylum seekers was ruled unconstitutional by courts in both Australia and South Korea, but protections for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants remained inadequate across the region and their human rights were widely disregarded.

Many refugees and migrants were arbitrarily and indefinitely detained, including in squalid immigration detention centres, or were denied adequate housing and basic services and lacked freedom of movement.

The Malaysian authorities failed to investigate the deaths of 150 people, including women and children, in immigration detention centres in 2022 and, in the meantime, concerns about conditions in the centres persisted. In Bangladesh, a fire in one camp and a cyclone rendered thousands of Rohingya refugees homeless yet again. In Thailand, a new mechanism for screening refugees and asylum seekers was established, but their indefinite detention continued, and poor conditions resulted in the deaths of two Uyghur men. A new immigration law in Japan sanctioned the continuation of indefinite detention of refugees and asylum seekers, while amendments to Taiwan’s immigration law failed to include protections against refoulement.

There was serious concern about the fate of hundreds of North Koreans forcibly repatriated by the Chinese government despite warnings that they would likely face severe punishment. Following the Pakistan government’s October announcement that unregistered Afghan refugees must leave the country within a month, over 490,000 people were forcibly returned to Afghanistan which many had fled for fear of persecution by the Taliban. Malaysia also violated the principle of non-refoulement by forcibly returning refugees to Myanmar where they faced serious human rights violations.

Government responses to human trafficking in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand remained inadequate, where foreign workers were recruited by deceptive means and forced, often under threat of violence, to work in cyber scams and illegal gambling operations.

Governments must cease detaining asylum seekers on the basis of their immigration status and allow them to seek international protection. In no circumstances should anyone be forcibly returned to a place where they could face persecution or other human rights violations. Protections against human trafficking should be strengthened and survivors provided with legal and other support including for facilitation of repatriation where safe to do so.

Death penalty

In a positive move, the government of Malaysia repealed the mandatory death penalty for all offences and abolished the death penalty entirely for seven offences. However, the death penalty continued to be used extensively throughout the region, frequently in violation of international law and standards. In both China and Viet Nam, executions were reported but figures on the use of the death penalty remained classified as state secrets. In Afghanistan, death sentences were reported to have been imposed, including by methods such as stoning, found by UN bodies to amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. In Singapore, a woman was among those executed for drugs related offences, while anti-death penalty activists and lawyers were subjected to harassment.

Governments that still retain the death penalty must take urgent steps to abolish it.

Children’s rights

The criminalization of children continued to be of concern in several countries. In both Australia and New Zealand, children as young as 10 years old could still be detained and youth detention facilities in both were also found to endanger children. In Thailand, nearly 300 children were among those criminally charged for their participation in the largely peaceful protests over recent years. They included a young man who was sentenced to one year’s prison sentence, suspended for two years, for participating in a mock fashion show in 2020 – when he was 16 years old – satirizing the monarch. In North Korea, reports of the widespread use of forced labour including by children continued.

Governments must never arrest or detain children for exercising their rights, including to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression. Governments should raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 14 years or above and must ensure children in conflict with the law are treated in accordance with the principles of child justice, including by strictly limiting the use of detention.