Asia and the Pacific Regional Overview

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Asia And The Pacific 2022

There were faint glimmers of hope for human rights in the Asia-Pacific region, with modest gains in the rights of women and LGBTI people in several countries, a new law criminalizing torture in Pakistan and the abolition of the death penalty in Papua New Guinea. Yet, the overall picture remained bleak. Civilians bore the brunt of escalating armed conflict in Myanmar. The full effects of Taliban rule on human rights in Afghanistan became increasingly apparent including the particularly devastating rollback of the rights of women and girls. Economic crises fuelled by pandemic-related recession, economic mismanagement and armed conflict within and beyond the region severely affected economic and social rights including in Afghanistan, Laos and Sri Lanka, where food, healthcare and an adequate standard of living became increasingly inaccessible. Intolerance of dissent grew as authorities in numerous countries tightened restrictions on freedom of expression and association and arbitrarily arrested and detained their critics. People took to the streets across the region to protest against injustice, deprivation and discrimination, but in countries including Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Thailand they were met with excessive, sometimes lethal, force. Impunity was compounded by the inability of the UN Human Rights Council to effectively address serious concerns in China and the Philippines. Well-established patterns of discrimination, including against minorities, women and girls, LGBTI people and Indigenous peoples also persisted. The resumption of executions in Afghanistan and Myanmar represented a major regression.

Economic, social and cultural rights

Economic crises severely impacted human rights including the rights to an adequate standard of living and to health. In Sri Lanka, inflation exceeded 73% in September, making food, healthcare and other basic needs unaffordable, particularly for day wage workers, many of whom were women and from Malaiyaha Tamil minorities. High inflation in Laos similarly put basic commodities out of reach for many. In Afghanistan, the spiralling economic crisis plunged 97% of the population into poverty, with the vast majority of households experiencing hunger and increasingly resorting to negative coping strategies to survive – a situation that was set to worsen further following the Taliban’s December decree banning women from working for humanitarian and other NGOs. The decree restricted livelihood opportunities for women and prevented people from accessing services that were previously provided by women workers.

Elsewhere, inadequate housing protections and house demolitions left thousands of people homeless and destitute or at risk thereof. In Nepal, the government ignored calls to amend a 2018 housing law, which failed to adequately guarantee the right to housing, leaving hundreds of families, predominantly from marginalized communities or those living in informal settlements, at risk of eviction. In India, authorities unlawfully demolished mainly Muslim-owned homes and other private property in the capital, New Delhi, and in several states, raising concerns that this was a form of collective punishment for alleged involvement in inter-communal clashes. In Cambodia and Mongolia, multiple households were made homeless or lost their livelihoods as a result of urban development projects.

Governments must guarantee economic, social and cultural rights, without discrimination.

Freedom of expression

The right to freedom of expression remained under threat in the region as many governments intensified crackdowns on dissent and sought to avoid scrutiny.

Attacks on press freedom persisted in multiple countries. In Afghanistan, journalists faced arbitrary arrest and detention as well as torture and other ill-treatment for reporting that was critical of the Taliban. In Bangladesh, where journalists experienced physical assaults, judicial harassment and other reprisals for their reporting, a draft data protection law threatened to further curtail freedom of expression. Media workers in Pakistan also came under increased pressure as journalists and others were arrested on spurious charges. A new administration in the Philippines brought no immediate respite for the media; at least two journalists were killed in the latter part of the year while judicial harassment of others continued and websites belonging to independent media groups remained blocked.

In China, online censorship and surveillance grew ever more pervasive within the country. The government also sought to prevent the discussion of its human rights record internationally, including by trying to stop the OHCHR from publishing a report documenting potential crimes under international law and other serious human rights violations against Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang.

The Indian government likewise tried to prevent the human rights situation there from being discussed abroad by imposing international travel bans on human rights defenders. It also took the extraordinary and unlawful step of banning a list of ordinary words from being used in parliamentary debates in a clear attempt to restrict criticism from opposition parties.

In Myanmar, the military authorities intensified both online and offline surveillance and restricted the right to information, reportedly using CCTV cameras with facial recognition capabilities in major cities and imposing periodic nationwide internet and telecommunications shutdowns. In North Korea, all criticism of the government remained forbidden.

In Indonesia, freedom of expression was dealt a further blow with the adoption in December of a new penal code that recriminalized insulting the president and other officials and state institutions. The Maldives parliament passed a law that could force journalists to reveal their sources. Encouragingly, the Maldives government was considering amending the law, but faced strong criticism.

Authorities in Viet Nam continued to use the existing criminal code to arbitrarily arrest and prosecute critics. A new decree, “Decree 53”, requiring tech companies to store user data and potentially share it with the authorities, potentially provided a new tool to silence dissent.

In both Malaysia and Nepal, comedians were among those who faced prison sentences in relation to their performances.

Governments must respect media freedoms, halt all investigations or prosecutions related to the exercise of the right to freedom of expression without discrimination and repeal legal provisions that criminalize legitimate expression or which can be used to restrict it.

Freedom of peaceful assembly and association

Even as governments sought to repress dissent, people across the region claimed their right to protest against injustice and discrimination, often risking arbitrary arrest and detention, as well as injury and even death when authorities repeatedly resorted to unnecessary and excessive force.

In Sri Lanka, police used live ammunition, tear gas and water cannon against largely peaceful crowds protesting against the economic crisis, causing deaths and injuries. Police in Bangladesh used live and rubber bullets, sound grenades and tear gas to disperse protests by students and workers.

In Pakistan, authorities forcibly broke up peaceful protests by activists and family members of victims of enforced disappearances. Protesting victims of loan sharks in Nepal were met with police baton charges and arbitrarily detained. In India, a 15-year-old boy and another protester were shot and killed by police during demonstrations in Jharkhand state. Police in Indonesia also responded with unnecessary and sometimes lethal force to protests including in Papua and West Papua.  

New restrictions were introduced further limiting the right to protest in several countries. In Karnataka state in India, an order was upheld which restricted protests to a designated area in the state capital. A new penal code in Indonesia banned unauthorized demonstrations, while in Australia, several states adopted new laws imposing fines and prison sentences for participation in unauthorized protests.

Freedom of association was also further curtailed in a number of countries. In Afghanistan, the space for independent human rights monitoring and reporting had all but disappeared. In India, money laundering laws and other pretexts were used to harass NGOs. New restrictions were imposed on the legitimate work of NGOs in Myanmar with non-compliance punishable by imprisonment.

In Cambodia, the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, remained banned and prosecution of its members and that of its successor, the Candlelight Party, continued. Public accusations of links to communist groups, known as “red-tagging”, continued to be used in the Philippines against organizations and individuals as a way of suppressing dissent by marking them out for arbitrary detention and unlawful killing. In Mongolia, human rights defenders faced accusations of spying and other familiar patterns of intimidation. Civil society space in Chinese Autonomous Region of Hong Kong contracted even further in 2022 as legitimate NGO activities were criminalized, creating an environment of fear and self-censorship.

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

In China, despite the authorities’ assertions to the contrary, many thousands of men and women were still believed to be arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang. Tibetan activists in China were also sentenced to lengthy prison sentences after unfair trials for activities deemed to have “incited separatism” or “endangered national security”.

Elsewhere across the region, human rights defenders, political and environmental activists and others were arbitrarily arrested and detained for asserting their right to protest or otherwise challenging government policies and actions.

In Thailand, more than 1,000 people including several hundred children were facing criminal charges for their participation in protests. Protesters in Sri Lanka were arrested, arbitrarily detained and charged with terror-related and other offences. In Myanmar, mass arbitrary arrests and detentions of opponents of the military regime continued and more than 1,000 people were convicted in grossly unfair trials.

In Viet Nam, long prison sentences were imposed on human rights and land rights activists, and in India, human rights defenders were detained without trial.

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 prevailed as national authorities in many countries failed to fulfil victims’ rights to justice, truth and reparation, and international bodies too often reneged on their responsibilities to protect them.

Despite the report by OHCHR that added to an already strong body of evidence of Chinese atrocities in Xinjiang the UN Human Rights Council voted against even holding a debate on the situation. It similarly betrayed the countless victims of the “war on drugs” in the Philippines by failing to renew OHCHR’s monitoring mandate, despite a disturbing increase in police killings during anti-drug operations during the year. By contrast, in the face of a lack of progress on establishing accountability for crimes under international law committed during and after the armed conflict in Sri Lanka, the council adopted a resolution to extend OHCHR’s mandate to gather evidence for future accountability processes.

Impunity became further entrenched in Afghanistan, where the Taliban’s version of a justice system lacked any credibility. In Nepal, there was no progress towards realizing the right to justice for the tens of thousands of victims of grave human rights violations committed during the 1996-2006 internal armed conflict there.

Where prosecutions of alleged perpetrators took place, trials were too often marred by irregularities. For example, there were serious questions about the credibility of a trial in Indonesia in which a former military commander was acquitted of the unlawful killing of four Papuan high-school students in 2014.

Governments must address impunity by undertaking thorough, independent, impartial, effective and transparent 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.

Violations of international humanitarian law

The Myanmar military was responsible for war crimes as it intensified indiscriminate and targeted ground and air attacks against civilians and civilian objects, and looted and burned villages, killing hundreds and forcibly displacing thousands of people. Its use of cluster munitions and land mines, both banned under international law, was also documented.

War crimes were also committed in Afghanistan, where the Taliban continued its campaign of reprisal killings against members of the former administration and security forces and arbitrarily arrested, extrajudicially executed and tortured individuals allegedly associated with the National Resistance Front and other armed opposition groups.

Armed groups were also responsible for grave violations in Afghanistan, where Islamic State – Khorasan Province (IS-KP) continued its targeted attacks on minority ethnic and religious groups, including by bombing religious and educational facilities used by Hazara and Sikh communities. In Myanmar, some groups used banned anti-personnel landmines or improvised explosive devices. Armed groups in India’s Jammu and Kashmir region reportedly killed at least 19 civilians including members of the Hindu minority community.

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

Corporate accountability

Following an Amnesty International report documenting the role of businesses in importing and distributing aviation fuel that could be used by Myanmar in military air strikes against civilians, implicated companies including Puma Energy and other foreign businesses announced that they were exiting or suspending business operations in Myanmar.

Underscoring the need for corporate actors to take seriously their responsibility to protect and promote human rights and to be held to account when they do not, Amnesty International also found that Meta’s (formerly Facebook) algorithms and business practices had substantially contributed to grave human rights violations suffered by Rohingya in Myanmar 2017.

Corporate actors should put in place due diligence measures to ensure that their operations and those of their partners do not cause or contribute to human rights abuses. They should also put mitigation measures in place against any potential abuses.

Freedom of religion and belief

Freedom of religion and belief remained under threat in several countries. In India, where Muslims were routinely arrested and prosecuted for exercising their religious freedoms, the Karnataka state government, following the example of other states, passed a law criminalizing marriages where the forced conversion of one spouse, often the Hindu woman, was alleged by a relative or other person. Girls were also banned from wearing the hijab in public schools in Karnataka.

Allegations of violations of blasphemy laws continued to result in death sentences and lynchings in Pakistan where forced conversions to Islam of Hindu, Christian and Sikh women and girls also persisted.

In China, religious leaders and Falun Gong practitioners were among those subjected to arbitrary detention and imprisonment, while the continued persecution of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and those from other predominantly Muslim ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang threatened to erase both their religious and cultural identities.

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

Women’s and girls’ rights

New legislation aimed at strengthening protections for women and girls, including legislation combating sexual and gender-based violence, was adopted in several countries including China, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. In India the Supreme Court passed two progressive judgments upholding the right to dignity of sex workers, by directing the police to stop harassing them and interpreting an existing law to expand abortion access to all women, notwithstanding their marital status.

Nevertheless, the reality for many women and girls in the region remained one of systemic discrimination and violence. In Afghanistan, women and girls were effectively erased from public life and spaces as new edicts further restricted their rights and freedoms which, in addition to banning them from working with NGOs, forbade them from travelling without a male chaperone, attending secondary school and university or going to public parks, among other restrictions.

In Nepal, women continued to be denied equal citizenship rights and, although the statute of limitations for rape was extended, the excessively short period in which complaints must be filed remained a significant barrier to effective remedy for survivors.

Legal obstacles to women’s participation in elections in Fiji remained in place during the December parliamentary elections because a legal challenge to a discriminatory law requiring women to change their name on their birth certificate if they wished to vote under their married name was unresolved. Women’s representation in public life remained low, including in Papua New Guinea – where only two of the 118 parliamentarians elected in 2022 were women – and Japan, where women accounted for just 10.6% of prefectural assembly members.

Violence against women also remained prevalent. There were calls on the Maldives authorities by UN experts to address rising gender-based violence there. In Bangladesh, hundreds of incidents of rape or murder of women by their husbands or other family members were recorded by an NGO, although many cases are thought to go unreported and impunity for such crimes remained widespread. Despite being criminalized, violent attacks on women and girls accused of sorcery continued in Papua New Guinea.

In Pakistan, several high-profile murders of women by their partners or family members were reported, yet the National Assembly failed to adopt legislation on domestic violence, pending since 2021.

Governments across the region must accelerate efforts to protect and end discrimination against women and girls and take concrete steps to prevent and prosecute gender-based and sexual violence.

LGBTI people’s rights

Some steps were taken towards legal recognition of LGBTI rights in countries including Japan, Singapore and Taiwan. In Singapore, consensual sexual relations between men were decriminalized. However, the Singapore government also amended the constitution to effectively block same-sex marriage and, overall, LGBTI people in the region remained among the most at-risk groups, with particular concerns in South Asia.

In Sri Lanka, despite a landmark decision by the CEDAW Committee that provisions in Sri Lanka’s Penal Code criminalizing consensual same-sex conduct violate the right to non-discrimination, the government failed to act. In Afghanistan, LGBTI people were forced to live in hiding to protect themselves against physical and sexual assault, arbitrary detention and other violations by the Taliban. Chinese authorities also continued their anti-LGBTI campaign, severely restricting both offline and online LGBTI activism and censoring LGBTI content. In Pakistan, violent attacks, hate speech and threats against transgender people persisted and murder rates of transgender people were the highest in the region.

Governments should repeal laws and policies that discriminate against LGBTI people, including by decriminalizing consensual same-sex relations and removing legal obstacles to same-sex marriage, and put in place measures to protect LGBTI people’s rights and enable them to live in safety and dignity.

Ethnic and caste-based discrimination and Indigenous peoples’ rights

In both India and Pakistan, caste-based discrimination continued largely unabated. In India, Dalits and Adivasis were subjected to violence and discrimination from members of dominant castes with impunity. A draft bill was tabled in Bangladesh that would outlaw discrimination including based on caste, religion and other identities, but mobs continued to conduct violent attacks against Hindu minorities.

Indigenous peoples as well as ethnic and religious minority groups also continued to face widespread discrimination in Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand. In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were disproportionally represented in the penal system. In Sri Lanka, Muslim and Tamil minorities were arbitrarily arrested and detained in disproportionate numbers under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act. Online advocacy of hatred towards and disinformation about ethnic Korean people continued in Japan and they were scapegoated for the assassination of former prime minister Shinzo Abe.

In Nepal, Indigenous peoples, evicted from their ancestral lands during the establishment of national parks and conservation areas, remained landless and at risk of eviction from informal settlements. Malaysian authorities forcibly relocated members of an Indigenous community in Kelantan state to make way for the construction of a dam, while illegal logging in Cambodia continued to threaten the livelihoods and culture of Indigenous peoples there.

Governments must provide effective and accessible access to justice to victims of ethnic, religious and caste-based discrimination and hate crimes, and work with affected communities to develop comprehensive programmes to eliminate discrimination in the criminal justice system and advocacy of hatred in online and offline domains.

Torture and other ill-treatment

Torture and other forms of ill-treatment of detainees remained commonplace in many countries and custodial deaths including as a result of torture were reported in at least ten countries.

After a decade-long struggle, a law to criminalize torture was finally adopted in Pakistan, but reports of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees persisted, as did incidents of torture in detention in Mongolia despite the establishment of a national mechanism for the prevention of torture there. In Nepal, torture in pretrial detention including to obtain “confessions” also continued to be reported, and there were still no convictions under the 2017 law criminalizing torture.

Fifty-four alleged deaths in custody were recorded in the first nine months of 2022 in Bangladesh. There were reports of sexual violence in detention in Myanmar, where hundreds of people died in custody during the year. Torture and other forms of ill-treatment were also reported elsewhere, including China, North Korea and Viet Nam.

In the Indonesian province of Aceh, scores of men and women were subjected to flogging. State-authorized public floggings also resumed in Afghanistan following the Taliban’s return to power.

States must prohibit and criminalize torture and other acts of ill-treatment, and take effective measures to protect people and prevent these forms of abuse. Where they occur, states must investigate allegations, hold those responsible to account and provide victims with a remedy.

Failure to tackle climate crisis

Devastating floods, soaring temperatures, deadly typhoons and coastal erosion highlighted the vulnerability of the region to climate change. Yet preparedness and adaptation remained largely inadequate and the poorest and most marginalized suffered the greatest consequences. In Pakistan, heatwaves, droughts and then devastating floods left nearly 750,000 people without access to adequate housing, education or healthcare. In India, farmers, street vendors, daily wage earners and other outdoor workers were particularly affected by record-breaking heat and air pollution. In Bangladesh, climate change, compounded by discrimination, prevented Dalits and other marginalized groups from coastal south-western regions from accessing water supplies and sanitation.

Despite the warning signs, emissions targets set by many states in the region, including the biggest emitters, remained insufficient to keep the increase in average global temperatures below 1.5˚C, and policies were often inconsistent with meeting even these targets. Particularly worrying was the continued financing by Japan of global oil, gas and coal projects and its plans for the construction of new coal-fired electricity plants; China’s increased coal production despite government pledges to transition to renewables; and the incompatibility of South Korea’s electricity generation plans with the need to phase out coal by 2030.

Governments across the region must urgently review climate change targets and policies to ensure that they are consistent with keeping global temperatures down. Investment in disaster preparedness and adaptation must be increased and protection of marginalized and other groups particularly at risk from climate change prioritized. Wealthier countries in the region must also urgently scale up climate finance to lower-income countries and commit to providing additional dedicated funding for loss and damage.

Refugees’ and migrants’ rights

Refugees and asylum seekers remained highly marginalized and at risk of refoulement.

The plight of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar remained unresolved. In Bangladesh, there was some improvement in access to education for Rohingya children, but an estimated 100,000 remained out of school. In Malaysia, Rohingya and other refugees from Myanmar remained detained indefinitely and several died during an attempted escape. Allegations of ill-treatment and poor conditions in immigration detention centres were also reported to have caused the deaths of many Indonesian nationals in Malaysia.

The practice of detaining refugees and asylum seekers solely for immigration purposes continued in Australia, Japan and the Chinese special administrative region of Hong Kong. In South Korea, there were reports of ill-treatment of foreign nationals in detention centres. In New Zealand an independent review found the immigration detention framework was “a recipe for arbitrary detention” and recommended an end to holding asylum seekers in correctional facilities.

Afghans fleeing persecution at home faced pushbacks from neighbouring countries, while the Malaysian authorities deported thousands of people to Myanmar despite the grave human rights situation there.

Governments must cease detaining asylum seekers on the basis of their immigration status and allow them to seek international protection, ensuring that they are not forcibly returned to a country where they would face persecution.

Death penalty

The Papua New Guinea government abolished the death penalty. Executions resumed in Afghanistan, Myanmar and Singapore. In Singapore, lawyers representing people on death row faced intimidation and harassment.

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