The future of human rights in Asia

Asking people what they believe the priority challenges or opportunities for human rights in Asia are, is both impossible and important at the same time.

On the one hand, it is impossible to predict the future. Asia is such a vast region that it is difficult to generalise. And there are so many issues that are all inter-related, that it is difficult to separate them. Deciding early on what the issues of the future are, might even close our eyes for new developments.

On the other hand, looking to the future to foresee certain trends and developments, should be a key component for planning, monitoring and evaluation of any organisation. Even more so, when attempting to prevent humanitarian crisis or developing early warning mechanisms.

The following chapter presents an overview of issues and possible ways forward as they were identified by the various people that gave input to this publication. They did so through their participation in meetings, by being interviewed or through written submissions. Obviously the overview is not comprehensive. The priorities and trends were subject to the opinions of those particular people that were involved. More significantly, the clustering and summarising of these inputs was done by the editors of this book.

The following should therefore not be seen as a conclusive or final overview of all the challenges that Asia has to face in the coming years, nor of the possible developments which might help in combating them, but as input to the discussion on the future of human rights in our region.

The first part of the chapter introduces the key challenges that were identified. Some of them are new, most of them are not. The second part of the chapter looks at opportunities and requirements that might contribute to the improvement of the human rights situation in Asia.

The first part is significantly longer than the second. Most people that contributed were fairly pessimistic. However, that does not mean they were throwing in the towel. On the contrary, all the people that were interviewed are fighting for human rights in Asia. Many have been doing so for many years, decades. They are not giving up.

  1. Key Challenges for Human Rights in Asia

Looking towards the future, most experts that provided input to this project painted a bleak picture. Describing how progress and regress related to human rights in Asia tends to come in waves. Many indicated we seem to be flowing backwards at the moment.

Backtracking on some of the human rights progress that was achieved, was highlighted across a range of issues, specifically women’s rights, as well as a reinterpretation of international commitments. Reviewing the many challenges the region is and will be facing in the coming time, the following nine themes were highlighted repeatedly.

    1. Enforced disappearances, extra- judicial killings and a culture of impunity

Potentially the most devastating trend that was identified is the perceived increase in enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings, which is being hidden by a culture of impunity and fear. Human rights refenders (HRDs) and reporters have long been the targets of these horrific ordeals. A new group, though, that is increasingly being victimised are bloggers. Clearly no one should have to worry for or pay with their lives for standing up for human rights. Addressing this trend should therefore be a priority everywhere.

    1. Shrinking space for civil society

Directly related to the above described trend, and by far the most mentioned, is that throughout Asia there seems to be shrinking space for civil society. Obviously, the more authoritarian the regime, the worst this trend is. However, unfortunately it was also noted that several countries, that claim to be democracies, are increasingly cracking down on civil society.

In different places across the region this phenomenon is implemented through different means, however, it seems that strategies are also copied from one place to another. Bad ideas seem to spread like viruses.

One of the principal tools through which Governments in the region have been silencing civil society, has been the criminalisation of dissent. Threats and abuse of power, as well as the adoption of laws and regulations, that limit the Freedom of Expression (FoE) and Freedom of Assembly and Association (FoAA) of those that are critical of the ones in power, have become common practice in many countries across Asia.

Several regimes have decided to openly target non-governmental organisations (NGOs). New restrictive laws regulating NGOs, include: obligations to register and constantly report on activities and finances; restrictions on funding from abroad; and limits on who NGOs are allowed to associate with, like international institutions, agencies and processes, including the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

Human rights organisations have been fined, prosecuted and expelled based on these laws. Not only does this represent a blatant violation of their rights to FoE and FoAA, it represents a diminishing of democratic space and an undermining of their political rights.

Many of these arbitrary regulations have also been aimed at silencing media. Both traditional and online media have been physically and legally at risk. Having a vibrant and diverse media landscape is essential in any country, and a key component of a functioning democracy. It is a worrisome trend to see this being actively countered in so many places in Asia.

    1. National security discourse and militarisation of society

One of the discourses that is increasingly being heard is the justification of the above described crack down on civil society and other forms of human rights violations based on national security. Under the guise of protecting the safety and security of the nation, the rights and freedoms of people are sacrificed.

Obviously this practice is most prominent in those countries in the region that are still suffering from armed conflict. Asia is host to some of the longest-running violent struggles in the world, including several relating to the right to self- determination of groups that have long been repressed.

While the relation between peace and human rights has long been recognised, this has not led to the realisation that peace, human rights and sustainable development are interlinked to the extent that neither can be reached without realising the other. In a similar fashion, reconciliation and learning from the past have rarely been considered a priority in post-conflict countries in the region.

The current militarisation of society is not limited to countries that are directly affected by armed conflict though, it is also seen in many places that are supposedly at peace. Real, perceived or created threats of terrorism, powerful neighbours or crime are used to justify the securitisation and militarisation of society. Defence spending has been increasing throughout the region. Increases in one country trigger similar responses in neighbouring countries further stimulating an arms race. Current tensions, in particular in East Asia, are likely to advance this trend in the coming years.

Civilian oversight over the military and security sector has always been limited. Enhances in regional and international military cooperation further limit democratic control over the sector. Combining this reality with the fact that in all Asian countries the spending on defence consumes a substantial amount of all Government revenue, should be considered a serious violation of political rights. In countries where the military still has complete or covert control over the Government their influence over society extends to not just political, but also economic power.

Counter-terrorism arguments are an integral part of the national security discourse. The doctrine of fear that has inspired anti-terrorist laws across Asia is used to violate human rights on a daily basis.

    1. Flawed democracies and good governance

When asked about the future of human rights in Asia, several participants also reflected on the many flawed democracies across the region. Good governance and transparent institutions are still a distant dream in many countries. Restricting the right to information and press freedom were indicated as closely linked to the limitations of Asian democracies.

The importance of the rule of law was highlighted by many as well. A properly functioning and independent judiciary needs to be a key component of the rule of law. While it was indicated that gains have been made in relation to the adoption and ratification of international and domestic declarations, institutions and laws; implementation remains problematic in many places in the region. It was pointed out by several participants that in some countries there have been active attempts to undermine or hollow out existing human rights mechanisms. Arguments that dispute the universality of human rights are often used to justify such actions.

Another issue that was highlighted as being of great importance, but also a challenge for human rights in Asia, was elections. There have been positive developments related to elections in certain countries, including an increase in the participation of different political parties, the involvement of civil society, and the relatively peaceful transfer of power.

However, in other places elections have become increasingly flawed. This does not merely relate to the voting itself, but to the entire electoral cycle. The ability of people to exercise their right to vote freely is being curtailed in many ways, including: obstacles to register to vote; intimidation and use of bribes; and refusal to allow international observers.

    1. Marginalised groups

Many people in Asia face the violations of their human rights on a daily basis. There are certain groups in society though that face additional challenges only because of who they are.

Women continue to be confronted with larger obstacles when it comes to the realisation of their human rights compared to men. Even in the most progressive parts of the region, women are still at a disadvantage. However, in many other places their rights are being violated to the extent that they are turned into less than secondary citizens.

There has been some progress when it comes to the setting of standards, in particularly stemming from the Beijing Platform for Action, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and other international instruments. However, implementation has been disappointing. More lamentably, some Governments in the region have been consciously trying to undermine the commitments that were made in the past. Some experts even doubted whether the gains made through the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995 would have been possible under the current leadership in the region.

However, within and among civil society progress has been made, which has and will continue to improve the position of women in Asia. This centres on the recognition within the human rights movement that women’s rights are human rights. An example of this is the inclusion of domestic violence in the human rights agenda for the region. This shift of mind-set is crucial for equality to be reached.

Another group that has long been recognised as at a greater risk of having their rights violated are indigenous people. Across Asia indigenous people continue to face conflicts related to land and self-determination, among other things. Most notable is that many of these conflicts are further exacerbated by large scale development projects that threaten indigenous communities and their life-styles.

A group that is relatively new in its political mobilisation in Asia is the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and questioning (LGBTIQ) community. By no means new in society, their integration in the regional human rights movement remains difficult, unfortunately even from within the movement itself. LGBTIQ people face serious human rights violations on a daily basis, and the protection and promotion of their rights should be at the top of the list of priorities.

Both migrants and refugees, and religious minorities were identified as groups that face additional challenges related to human rights too. More about their situation will follow later in this chapter.

    1. Radicalisation and polarisation

Radicalisation and polarisation, both within and between countries, were seen by many as another worrisome trend in Asia. While in many instances this is linked to religion, other forms of fundamentalism – based on ideologies or national identities – are on the rise too.

Human rights violations, including violence and killings, in the name of protecting religion or religious sensitivities are intensifying. Incitement of hatred and polarisation are at the basis of all such incidents. Religious minorities, women and LGBTIQ people are particularly under threat. However, those pertaining to the religious majority groups find their right to Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) restricted too, if merely by having their right to choose or change taken away.

The politicisation of religion and the religionisation of politics are particularly problematic. Legislation on hate speech, incitement, blasphemy and defamation of religion is being used to restrict or violate human rights in the name of protecting religion or religious sensitivities. At times State authorities are reluctant to bring those responsible for abuses of FoE and FoRB – including physical attacks and killings – to justice. This can be due to the fear of being portrayed as against religion themselves or the risk of losing political support from members of their constituencies, including religious or nationalist groups. In many cases, States have tacitly supported the actions of non-state actors, including extremist factions, which has resulted in the further exacerbation of rights violations. The blurring of the distinction between religion and ethnicity are resulting in exclusionary nationalistic identities. Leading minority groups to being marginalised and targeted even further.

However, these forms of radicalisation and polarisation are not limited to religion. Similar processes can be seen based on ideology or national identities. Particularly the polarisation between countries, among others triggered by territorial disputes, is cause for concern in the region.

    1. Economic justice and inequality

From its beginning FORUM-ASIA recognised the interconnectedness between development and human rights. The right to food, health, housing or work, to name a few, are all basic human rights. While progress has been made when it comes to the sheer number of people in Asia who have these rights realised, the magnitude of the population in the region is so large – more than half of the world’s population lives in Asia Pacific – that many are still left behind. More so, the inequality gap and the consequences of belonging to the ‘have- not’s’ are becoming more dire.

Economic growth has been unequal among the different countries in the region. Globalisation and free-trade have created a competitive market in which many Asian economies largely rely on cheap labour. To stay ahead, this means that labour needs to consistently becoming cheaper. Violations of labour rights are an unmistakable result of this. Particularly women are victims of this in many countries.

Human rights related challenges that HRDs in Asia have long campaigned against remain. This includes corruption, land-grabbing and the intrusive projects of extractive industries. However, the human rights movement has become more aware of the need to expand its work to address the role of businesses and corporations. Particularly globalisation and multi-country trade agreements have contributed to this.

This has led to the creation of a global, parallel legal system, beyond the scope of national legislation. Human rights violations related to this cannot be addressed by only engaging with Governments. The human rights movement will need to expand with whom it engages and enter the world of global industries and trade.

    1. Environmental and climate justice

Undoubtedly, environmental and climate related justice are of increasing importance for people in Asia. The struggle for resources, in particular land and water, is becoming more intense. Many conflicts, and subsequent human rights violations, are linked to the fight for land and access to natural resources. Long-standing disputes over ancestral land, as well as resistance to big development projects that infringe upon the rights of local communities, are further intensified.

This is further exacerbated by the degradation of the environment and the consequences of climate change. Asia houses some of the countries most vulnerable to global warming and climate change. Floods, desertification, mudslides and rising sea-levels are threatening the areas and communities that people live in.

At the same time, Asia also hosts some of the most populous nations in the world. Combined with the above mentioned climate change induced risks, the prospect of huge numbers of environmental refugees is very real.

    1. Migration and human trafficking

The world is currently facing an unprecedented flow of displaced people. Asia is no exception. On the contrary, some say that the numbers of refugees and migrants, as well as their treatment is among the worst in the world.

The most common reasons for migration in the region are: socio- economic disparity; lack of employment opportunities; threatening or unstable political situations; and armed conflicts. Increasingly migrants and refugees in Asia are using dangerous and risky routes, including over sea. Many of these are not being reported, in particular when it comes to urban refugees. Irregular migrants are exploited or fall in the hands of human traffickers. The seriousness of such practices has most recently been exposed in the discovery of mass- graves.

Once migrants and refugees arrive in their temporary or final destination, they face discrimination, detention and further exploitation. The overall majority of them have no access to justice, education, employment or health services.

There is a serious leadership crisis with regard to migration in the region. Neither sending nor receiving countries take responsibility. Many countries in the region have not signed nor ratified international treaties on migration, including the 1951 Refugee Convention and the Stateless Convention. More so, most countries lack national legislation to protect refugees, while regional frameworks are weak or non-existent.

Asia has seen an increasing securitisation of migration. Many Governments speak about how migrants are a risk to national security. Governments demonise refugees and migrants as people who take jobs from local people, and bring terrorist ideologies or ideas, and so on. Little attention is given to the human rights of migrants. More so, few people talk about the positive things these migrants bring to their new homes.

Migrants – both cross-border and rural- urban – and refugees are among the most vulnerable groups in any society. More so, for fear of being deported or detained, they do not dare to stand up for their rights. The probability of increased migrant flows in the coming years is high. This means migration and human trafficking needs to be a priority for human rights in the region.

  1. Windows of opportunity to look out for

In addition to asking what people considered to be the main challenges or threats to human rights in Asia, participants were also asked what windows of opportunity or contributing factors they saw to improve the human rights situation in the region. While by no means exhaustive, the following are some of the points that were raised.

Potentially the most important thing to improve the human rights situation in Asia is for people to know their rights. To know what they can claim and what they are entitled to. Once people’s knowledge and awareness about their rights are increased, they can be more critical of their Governments, and of the interpretations and implementation of their rights, including of those policies that sacrifice human rights in the name of national security, religion or economic growth. A new generation of HRDs needs to be created, one that will stand up to repression and lead a new people’s uprising.

Related to the above mentioned point, many hailed the solidarity that existed among Asian peoples, and the rest of the world, in the 1980’s and 1990’s. There was a perception that people were united against the violations of human rights in different places across the region, such as East Timor, Burma, Sri Lanka and Nepal. The inspiration and strength that human rights activists from such places gained from regional and international solidarity should not be underestimated. The need to regain such regional solidarity and potentially even the need to (re)create and promote a sense of Asian identity, was mentioned by many.

Obviously communication is crucial to both these approaches. The array of communication tools at our disposal in comparison to 25 years ago is staggering. The possibilities of using Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) for human rights work are essential to be able to exchange information, collaborate across boundaries and raise awareness among people.

The role of the media – both traditional and social media – is essential in this. The power of both forms of media to influence and shape public opinion is unprecedented. Politicians have long realised this, which is why many countries in Asia have or are developing different laws and legislation to both control the media – papers, radio and TV, but also the arts and entertainment – and regulate cyber space.

Both these channels are crucial for the human rights movement to get its messages and information out. Prioritising freedom of the press and countering cyber space regulations that restricts freedom of speech should be a priority. Collaboration between civil society and the media – two camps that do not always trust each other – is highly important to improve human rights in Asia.

Over the last decades much has been learned about and related to human rights work. Different experiences in campaigning against human rights violations have been documented. This body of knowledge, in the form of academic and research institutions, publications, books, documentaries and training materials, is there for all of us to use and learn from.

An increasing number of people study human rights in or on Asia. While the mere studying of human rights can never replace actually getting involved in the struggle, their knowledge can be very helpful. They should be included and called upon to support the fight for the protection and realisation of human rights.

In comparison to 25 years ago, many more States in Asia have ratified and signed on to a number of human rights related declarations, treaties and conventions. These represent international commitments to respect, protect and realise human rights.

Implementation is obviously the important part, and also the part that leaves much to be desired across the region. However, they represent commitments and tools that should be used and utilised. Governments should be called upon to honour their commitments, and international institutions should be approached for support if they do not.

The rate of ratification of human rights agreements has stalled in recent years, and crucial agreements have still not be signed and ratified by a number of countries in Asia. Still, those that have been signed or ratified present an opportunity, a tool that should be used.

In addition to treaties, declarations and conventions, many relevant regional and global justice mechanisms and institutions have been created over the last decades. Regionally, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC), and globally institutions such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) are a recognition of the importance of human rights. Not all of these institutions have been able to live up to the expectations they created when they were originally established though.

On a national level, an increasing number of countries in the region have established National Human Rights Institutions/Commissions (NHRIs). There are great differences in the scope, mandate, powers and relevance of these different NHRIs. This has led to the experiences that HRDs in the region have had when engaging with these institutions being very unequal.

Still, whatever the experience may be, the fact is that these institutions and mechanisms exist. They represent a recognition of the need to promote and protect human rights. It is up to the human rights movement to make sure that these institutions function in a way that is useful for people’s daily lives.

Many people in the consultation process placed importance on the role that businesses and corporations have in relation to human rights. It is therefore not surprising that Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) was recognised as an opportunity for HRDs.

Different campaigns to urge corporations to act responsibly and to respect and protect human rights have seen different levels of success. Multinational businesses, particularly those operating in developing countries, are called upon to respect the rights of both the people that work for them, and of those in whose environment they operate. Consumers have an important role to play here. Information on the conduct of businesses should be made public by HRDs, including specific options for consumers on what to do.

Another suggestion that was made was to promote international solidarity among labour forces, potentially even using global strikes to demand the protection and realisation of labour rights.

At the same time, there has been increasing recognition of the interconnectedness of human rights with peace and sustainable development. The distinction between the three is seen as artificial. More so, socio-economic rights of people are at the basis of sustainable development, while the right to peace has gained acceptance across the globe. When people live with armed conflict or war their human rights are violated constantly and consistently, while living in poverty guarantees basic human rights not being met.

Concepts like human security and developmental justice thus should be seen as instruments to promote human rights, security and development cohesively and holistically. They also force the human rights movement to assess and attempt to address the root- causes of human rights violations, and assure that this is done through a long- term and sustainable approach.

The recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have recognised this reality as well. Asia Pacific has been modestly successful at fulfilling the predecessors of the SDGs, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs, which were adopted in September 2000, focused primarily on making an end to poverty, hunger and disease. In Asia Pacific, it is estimated that 13 of the 21 MDG targets were realised. Mostly these were in the areas of: decline in poverty; access to water; and decline of both maternal and under-five mortality rates. Other targets proved to be unattainable, while the sheer number of people in the region has assured that much remains to be done. Many still live in disastrous circumstances without having their basic human needs and rights met.

The SDGs, which have been set for the coming 15 years with the hopes of being realised in 2030, differ quite significantly from the MDGs. Where the MDGs consisted of eight goals worked out through 21 targets, the SDGs cover 17 goals and are ambitiously setting out to realise 169 targets. More significantly, in assessing the MDGs it became clear that a major obstacle had been the failure to address the root-causes of poverty and inequality. Conflict-affected countries, for example, were among the least successful in realising the MDGs. This is why from the very initial drafting process the SDGs attempted to address such root- causes. Among others, this has led to the inclusion of peace and justice in the SDGs. Looking at the SDGs, goal 10 – reduce inequality within and among countries – and goal 16 – promote justice, peaceful and inclusive societies – will be particularly relevant for Asia Pacific. Given that the SDGs were adopted by all 193 UN Member States, they too present an opportunity to promote human rights in correlation with peace and development.

Finally, all people, who participated in some way or another in the collection of inputs for this publication, agreed to the need to grow and strengthen the human rights movement in Asia. A new and young generation of HRDs needs to be capacitated and supported to lead the movement. With them new energy and ideas will come, which is crucial to be able to counter constantly changing strategies of those who are violating human rights.

However, this growing of the movement does not end with youth. It is also needed to engage and collaborate with many stakeholders that have not always been natural allies. These include: media and reporters; international institutions that are not specifically focused on human rights, like the UN’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF), UN Women, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) or the UN Human Security Unit; and businesses and corporations.

  1. Conclusion

Clearly the array of issues and challenges that have been prioritised for the future of human rights in Asia are many. This list is not exhaustive. Many more issues could and should be added. According to the many people we talked to, Asian human rights is at a low point at the moment. However, there are also many opportunities and possibilities to make a difference to improve the lives of people across the region.

What is important is that all the people that contributed to the above overview, were willing to do so, and believed in the exercise. Even though they identified many challenges, they have not given up entirely. They still believe there is a future for human rights in Asia.