Statement on Human Rights Day, December 10, 2000
The Asian Human Rights Commission is pleased to witness growing awareness of human rights in Asia this Human Rights Day, December 10, 2000. Regrettably, burgeoning demands for recognition of human rights in the region have not lead to corresponding growth in implementation: throughout most of Asia respect for human rights remains low and in a number of countries glaring violations persist. Victims’ rights to competent judicial, administrative or legislative remedies have not be respected in most countries, and only partially in others. Most Asian states confine respect for human rights ?whether civil and political rights or economic, social and cultural rights ?to mere declarations and take virtually no steps towards enforcement. Often they obstruct domestic and international efforts to develop effective remedies. The Asian Human Rights Commission makes the following observations on particular issues.
The semi-human conditions of the nearly 200 million Dalits in India and Nepal remain a central human rights concern for Asia. Forced into employment that destroys their human dignity, for the lowest pay and under very harsh conditions, or as bonded labourers; they are deprived of the right to own land; are denied the right to real education and health; and are constantly subjected to torture and degrading treatment. Dalit women are frequently raped and exposed to other atrocities, including mutilation and murder, as punishment for attempts to assert their rights. Hostile authorities have failed to enforce constitutional safeguards and other forms of legal protection, such as the Prevention of Atrocities Act. Meanwhile, Brahmin-backed militants are increasingly agitating for restoration of the Hindu social order, in which the caste system was the central component. Even the limited concessions earlier won by Dalits are now under serious threat. External assistance is subject to severe restrictions ?such as those applied to religious missions ?under various pretexts. While world opinion has moved further against this slavery-like and apartheid-like practice, some Indian Government spokespersons have attempted to obstruct its discussion at the World Conference against Racism, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance to be held in August 2001. Regardless, the time has come for both South Asian and world opinion to take a bolder position for abolition of this heinous practice.
Police, Judiciary & Democratisation
Abuses in many Asian policing systems are closely connected to political control. In almost all South Asian states civic organisations have expressed serious concerns about the increasing influence politicians have over the police. Most common are complaints that police seem unable to prevent abuse of electoral processes. The police ?perceived as being manipulated by politicians ?have lost public confidence and their more professional sections have become demoralised, realising that their integrity and impartiality is not respected by the state. Police also face a major setback when merged with the military. Due to past or present armed conflicts the police in several countries have taken on military functions under national and public security laws and other emergency legislation; civilian policing suffers and even its memory may be lost, such as in former socialist countries. Recent attempts at democratisation in Cambodia have not yet led to the separation of military and police functions. In Burma, police are subordinate to the armed forces. In several parts of Pakistan and India, religious fundamentalist groups have acquired influence over police to directly or indirectly support militant activities. In other places, police engage in counter-insurgency operations and are endowed with extra-ordinary powers that change their policing mentality.
The judiciary in several countries has come under public criticism. The Malaysian judiciary has experienced much local and international condemnation in the wake of the Anwar Ibrahim case and other politically motivated legal action. In Singapore too, there is no possibility of challenging the executive on any matter of political sensitivity. The authorities in both these countries still speak of “Asian values” ?a synonym for control of social dialogue by the executive ?as opposed to human rights. In Pakistan the judiciary has long been under attack by the executive. Since the military takeover its credibility has suffered further, as it is in no position to uphold the constitutional order. In Cambodia, though the constitution recognises separation of powers, in practice there is none. Only provincial courts and appellate courts exist, with very limited authority; the supreme court remains dysfunctional. More vigorous exercise of jurisdiction over fundamental rights available to the judiciary under the constitution ?and expansion of these constitutional powers ?is needed. In other former socialist countries, such as China, Vietnam and Laos, problems in the judiciary are also closely linked to non-recognition of separation of powers.
Sri Lanka’s degenerating police and judicial systems are of special concern. Deprived many powers by emergency regulations and other special legislation, the Sri Lankan judiciary’s ability to intervene on important human rights issues has been greatly reduced. At times even disposal of dead bodies has been allowed without reference to the judiciary. This October, 28 young men were massacred at a rehabilitation detention centre. The National Human Rights Commission’s preliminary report states that 60 armed policemen were present at the time and that they shot two detainees trying to escape their attackers. Clearly the massacre was carried out in connivance with the policemen present, acting under instructions from higher officers. While amounting to a crime against humanity, the incident has been investigated as though purely a question of individual murders, and the burden of proof has been shifted to the survivors. The state is obliged to conduct proper criminal investigations and take prompt action to prosecute offenders, however judging from the Sri Lankan Government’s treatment of over 30,000 cases of disappearance between 1988-1992, and the thousands more thereafter, no satisfactory prosecutions are likely for reason of “insufficient evidence”. The Asian Human Rights Commission has on several occasions pointed out that this dismissal highlights the failure of criminal investigations in Sri Lanka: perpetrators of grave human rights abuses now act with assurance that no serious inquiries will follow. A sophisticated system exists to protect the perpetrators while none exists for the victims, making a mockery of justice and human rights.
Denial of justice and abuse of police power in Sri Lanka is often justified by reference to the ongoing civil war and human rights abuses committed by the LTTE insurgents. However, under no circumstances can the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity ?such as the October massacre and disappearances campaigns of the 1990s ?be justified. Unless a serious attempt is made to change Sri Lanka’s existing situation, the trend is towards far worse abuses in the future. The Asian Human Rights Commission has drawn the attention of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, other UN bodies and the international community to this situation. The Asian Human Rights Commission renews its call for the UN High Commissioner to establish a mission in Sri Lanka to monitor human rights abuses and crimes against humanity.
Political and military forces have also played a crucial role in instigating violence in Indonesia. This year, relatives and former associates of victims of the 1965-66 mass purges of alleged communists that brought former president Soeharto to power started uncovering mass graves from that period. Evidence from these sites must now become part of formal investigations by the National Human Rights Commission, which earlier was unable to prosecute the perpetrators due to legal limitations. Relatives of victims have demonstrated that the Indonesian people must expedite the process for judicial, police and military reforms, through their calls for an international tribunal to examine these violations. The timely establishment of an international tribunal or similar agency could bring an atmosphere of reconciliation to Indonesia and restore people’s confidence in the justice system. It may also help defuse escalating crises in some areas of Indonesia: ongoing disappearances and other human rights violations in Aceh have been recognised by Indonesia’s leadership and the international community, but little has been done to curb the violence. The UN High Commissioner’s Office was also very slow in responding to the Asian Human Rights Commission’s call for intervention to protect the lives of people in the Maluccus islands during clashes this year. International support for judicial, police and military reforms in Indonesia will remain a key concern in the next few years. Reformers will face strong resistance from yet powerful agencies in the military, however an independent judiciary with the power to act on military and police violations of human rights will be particularly essential for Indonesia’s democratisation.
Human rights groups in many Asian countries report on widespread torture and inhuman and degrading punishment. Police investigations are invariably directed towards obtaining confessions, largely due to the absence of advanced criminal investigation systems and age-old habits favouring tough methods. Confessions are used as evidence despite common knowledge that in many instances they are not given voluntarily: Licahdo, a leading Cambodian human rights NGO, reports that over 25% of cases before the courts there rely on confessions obtained through use of physical or mental pressure. South Asian laws of evidence prevent admission of confessions during criminal trials, however for special regulations ?such as prevention of terrorism laws ?exception is made. In a legal culture where abuse of police power is the norm, such admissions create suspicion of fair trial itself. There have been attempts in India to make only confessions to superior police officers admissible as evidence; this would have disastrous effects. Few Asian countries provide safeguards for the accused, such as making videos of police interviews and allowing lawyers to be present throughout inquiries.
In Burma not only do prisoners entirely lack safeguards ?widespread torture and inhuman treatment is believed to occur in military intelligence detention centres and prisons ?but also people in areas of the country subject to counter-insurgency operations are constantly exposed to cruel and inhuman treatment by security forces. Reports indicate persons from communities in those regions are tortured and abused when arbitrarily detained; when conscripted into forced relocation and labour programmes; and when entire populations are perceived as obstacles to military objectives.
South Asia has the world’s fourth largest concentration of refugees: at a rough estimate, 2.5 million. Most are from Afghanistan, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Burma. The main South Asian recipient countries are Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Thailand houses hundreds of thousands from Burma. There are also an estimated 5 million internally displaced persons. Though no South Asian states are signatories to the UN Convention on Refugees, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has offices in almost all these countries; but these only deal with refugees as defined under the Convention, constituting a small fraction of the total number of displaced persons. Most asylum seekers and displaced persons in South Asia depend on local NGOs and charitable organisations for protection and relief.
Despite the complementary roles played by the UNHCR and NGOs, the two sides have failed to develop a good working relationship. The major cause of friction is the UNHCR’s bureaucratic approach towards refugee determination, which applies an out-dated definition of refugees and individual status determination procedure resulting in about 60% of asylum seekers being rejected. In South Asia, where masses of people are being evicted by ethnic violence and governments are failing to protect basic rights, this procedure has proved patently inadequate; however the UNHCR has rebuffed all attempts to make the determination process more responsive. The UNHCR offices generally function on limited information, without adequate staff for independent research and investigation, tending to depend on media and government sources. Even when engaging investigators or interpreters they usually select persons close to governments.
From 1993-96, against the advice of NGOs, the UNHCR office in India agreed to interview Sri Lankan Tamil refugees on board the vessels they were arriving in with a view to “voluntary” repatriation. Conditions in the Indian-run refugee camps had been made so inhospitable that the refugees had no option but to agree to return. Again in 1993-94, despite reports that Bangladeshi officials were forcibly repatriating Rohingya Muslim refugees from Burma, the UNHCR continued to certify the repatriation as voluntary. NGOs reported that the UNHCR withheld relevant information from the refugees about the registration process that was used for repatriation. The UNHCR is also averse to democratising refugee camp management systems and has failed to integrate women, who make up the majority of the refugees, into policy making and management systems for relief and rehabilitation. On the whole, NGOs have found the UNHCR reluctant to cooperate on issues of protection and rehabilitation and willing only to enlist their support in the delivery of food, housing and health services. For this reason the much-advertised UNHCR’s Partnership-in-Action programme has flopped in South Asia.
Food is the most fundamental human right. Without food there is no life, and without sufficient food humans are denied the dignity to pursue those other rights that make life worthwhile. The right to food is reaffirmed in Article 25(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Yet in Asia, many people are suffering food shortages and creeping malnutrition due not to natural disaster or accident but because of man-made conditions.
While starvation death caused by wars and famine are newsworthy, chronic malnutrition does not grab headlines, although it affects more people. In India alone, over 200 million people are undernourished: around 22% of the population. More than 50% of Cambodia’s children are stunted by malnutrition; over 40% of mothers are underweight and suffer from anaemia. Approximately four out of five people in Nepal do not have proper sanitation and nearly half of the population does not have access to safe drinking water, contributing to the high level of malnutrition there. Available statistics suggest almost 60% of rural Sri Lanka’s lactating mothers and children are malnourished.
When wars and emergencies strike, pregnant women, nursing mothers and small children face the greatest risk of malnutrition and mortality. While chronic malnutrition can lead to death, among lactating mothers it may result in retardation of the physical and mental growth of their children. Leaders taking their countries along the path of militarisation have done so at the expense of their peoples’ rights to food and good health. Similarly, where society has not taken effective steps to transform or eliminate ingrained discriminatory practices like the caste system in India and Nepal, the denial of food, water and related facilities will continue.
Reports of a looming food crisis in Burma precipitated the People’s Tribunal on Food Scarcity and Militarization in Burma, which convened in 1998. Comprising three prominent members of Asia’s human rights movement, the Tribunal found that pervasive militarist policies placing demands of the state and armed forces before the rights of the people are causing hunger in Burma. Farmers are denied the right to work freely, their produce compulsorily procured without adequate compensation; people are compelled to work uncompensated on government projects, denied time to earn an income for themselves; food is destroyed or extorted and communities displaced by counter-insurgency operations: people are going hungry. In March, the People’s Tribunal presented its findings to the UN Commission on Human Rights. In spite of its comprehensive recommendations to the government of Burma and international community, conditions remain unchanged. The army continues to pursue policies and practices that ensure its primacy over the needs of the people. The People’s Tribunal is of the opinion that in failing to fulfill its obligation to guarantee the food security of its citizens, the government of Burma may be subject to action under international law. The Asian Human Rights Commission urges the international community to examine this issue seriously.
Education & Health
Across Asia, enjoyment of the right to education is characterised by marked disparities. While highly sophisticated education systems have become available to a few, most have no access to such facilities; a small group has enormous advantages over others. In some countries chronic shortages of teachers, particularly in rural areas, are stimulated by very low wages.
Teachers’ low pay is not merely an economic concern; it also contributes to their loss of status. Lack of infrastructure too is contributing to declining literacy. Even in countries that earlier achieved high literacy rates, growing numbers of children are not attending school. High levels of unemployment among graduates in certain countries have created apathy and provoked questions about the relevance of present-day education systems. In many places education systems are not only failing to meet the needs of students and families, but simultaneously are reinforcing negative ideologies: narrow nationalism, militarism and gender stereotypes.
Negativistic indoctrination diminishes the overall culture of human rights and contributes to the culture of abuse. Asian societies do not need education systems that teach children to justify human rights violations, or at least passively accept them, as a means to authoritarian control. Education must reinforce a positive culture of human rights through creative methodologies and civic participation.
Modern medical facilities have become available in most Asian countries, however costs are so high that only a very small number of people have access. Some countries like Cambodia and Burma have virtually no facilities. An Asian Human Rights Commission study in Cambodia revealed frightening levels of medical neglect and lack of access to even the most basic medical facilities. The World Health Organisation has ranked Burma’s health system second to worst in the world; worst for inequitable sharing of costs between the government and citizens, with users contributing almost 90% of the meagre funds for resources. The military government also ignores the escalating AIDS epidemic: a senior representative recently stated that AIDS does not exist in Burma as traditional morals protect the people from “foreign” diseases. Such attitudes in the face of this deepening crisis are a concern for the Asian region as a whole, particularly India, China and Cambodia. Many government agencies are reluctant to seriously develop anti-AIDS programmes, as full recognition of the crisis will demand provision of necessary resources to combat it effectively. The preventive aspects of health deserving a prominent place in educational campaigns have also receded to the background of Asia’s health care systems, giving emphasis to curative measures linked to privatisation. While ignorance and stigmatisation prevent future victims from taking preventive measures, governments find it easier to simply bypass the issues through lip service rather than genuine commitment.
Asia’s governments persistently undermine trade union rights guaranteed under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; even those states that have ratified the covenant. Many discourage the forming of unions, while trade unions in China, Vietnam and Laos require state authorisation and so become mechanisms for authoritarian control rather than representing workers’ interests. In Burma, trade unions are prohibited. By contrast, in Singapore and Malaysia control of trade unions is more subtle and part of broader social engineering. The impoverishment and exploitation of Asia’s workers are by-products of export-oriented industrialisation strategies.
Restrictions on unions are especially heavy in export processing zones, sometimes called “free trade zones”, where collective bargaining may threaten governmental strategies to attract foreign investment. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions reports that India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal have created such zones to entice trans-national corporations through the comparative advantage of their cheap labour; similarly Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Vietnam. The Confederation notes that in addition to receiving low wages, workers in these zones suffer poor working conditions and other abusive practices and policies. Sexual harassment, prohibitions of maternity leave and disincentives to marry are prevalent in workforces comprised primarily of women.
Workers standing up for their rights commonly face repression, such as imprisonment or assassination in Nepal and violent confrontations with police during demonstrations in Bangladesh and Cambodia. Anti-terrorist emergency regulations and national security laws are invoked against workers demanding their basic rights. In several countries, strike-breakers are frequently used to attack workers on the picket line. Overall, the Confederation says that “administrative barriers, excessive costs [and] slow proceedings” create barriers for workers seeking recognition of unions in Asia.
The right to work is structurally denied to the majority of Asian women, who have little or no choice of employment or its conditions. For hundreds of thousands, working in richer people’s houses is among the few ways of earning an income. Many young girls are sent to do domestic labour under a system of debt-bondage, as payment for loans taken out by their parents. The live-in domestic work system institutionalises feudal and slave-like relationships, where the servant is totally dependent on the master or mistress, without limit to the hours of work, no provision for leisure time, inadequate sustenance, and a total lack of privacy. Domestic workers from Katmandu to Manila are subjected to physical and verbal abuse and sexual harassment both in employers’ residences and on the streets. They are sometimes kept locked up, are subjected to inhuman treatment and punishment, are often under-paid or not paid at all and are made to do all kinds of degrading work. Migrant domestic workers, whether inside or outside their own countries ?often exploited by recruiting agents charging exhorbitant fees working hand in hand with corrupt government officials ?are disadvantaged both by discriminating laws and state policies as well as socially isolated. Domestic workers generally have no recourse to remedial procedures, because the abuses committed against them occur in private homes and are difficult to document. Above all, the laws do not protect them from repercussions by employers, agents and corrupt officials.
Women’s complaints of domestic violence and physical and sexual abuse are still not taken seriously across Asian societies that consider domestic matters private. Child marriage is the cruellest traditional repression of young girls perpetuating the low status of Asian women that is still widely practiced in South Asia. Brides as young as nine are burdened with heavy household chores and beaten up by in-laws and husbands angered by slight lapses; some harassed girls end their lives. Pregnancy at a young age also affects the child in the womb: 75% of under-age mothers give birth to underweight infants. Meanwhile, in many Asian traditions, women ?especially the poor, isolated, widows and divorcees not under a male guardian ?are blamed for misfortunes. Witch-hunting persists to this day and has claimed many lives, particularly in some parts of India, where throughout the last decade hundreds of women accused of witchcraft have been murdered.
The treatment of women in Afghanistan is of special concern. In the name of religion, the rights of women there are violated every minute of the day; their every movement curtailed. Afghan women are beaten and stoned in public for not wearing appropriate clothes, such as silent shoes to prevent them from being heard. One woman was recently beaten to death for accidentally exposing her arm while she was driving; another stoned to death for trying to leave the country with a man who was not a family member. Denied the right to work or even go out in public without a male relative, women there have been forced out of their jobs and ordered to stay at home. Women in Afghanistan without male relatives or husbands are either starving to death or begging on the street.
The emergence of East Timor is a bright event in Asia’s human rights struggle. After a long period of colonial occupation and extreme repression in which the lives of about 250,000 people were lost, the East Timorese have decided to regain their nation and be a people in their own right. The Indonesian military’s initially violent reaction to the East Timorese people’s determination for independence did not deter their love of freedom. Now they are defining their own destiny and paving the way for the creation of the political, social and economic structures of their country, currently under administration of the UN Transitional Authority for East Timor (UNTAET). The people are enjoying a moment of freedom, living without the fear they were used to under the colonial powers. The nation-building task lies ahead, and the East Timorese understand that this is a job they must essentially do themselves. The international community should respect their will and support them in this historic hour, as they construct their nation from ruins. The example they will set in dealing with the crimes committed against them will be a salutary lesson for others facing similar repression.
The Right to Peace
The Asian Human Rights Charter, which was declared in Kwangju, Korea in 1998 and sponsored by the Asian Human Rights Commission, recognises the Right to Peace. The Right to Peace implies the right to resolve internal conflicts via peaceful means. States are obliged to act with restraint towards all movements and persons seeking solutions to the problems besetting them. In Asia, governments bear primary responsibility for their historic use and abuse of force to crush perceived challenges to their authority, rather than attempting dialogue towards acceptable outcomes respecting human rights and a democratic framework. However all movements and persons fighting for their rights are also obliged to respect the rights of others, particularly civilian populations. In many instances, crimes against humanity and war crimes are perpetrated both by governments and insurgents. In parts of Asia experiencing armed conflict, widespread murder, systematic torture and gross human rights violations have become common. Both governments and their opponents owe a duty to their societies and the international community to seek avenues for peaceful conflict resolution via dialogue. Where governments or insurgents violate international law and commit war crimes or crimes against humanity, the means must exist to bring them before tribunals. In many Asian countries, penal codes do not recognise crimes against humanity. The Asian Human Rights Commission calls upon all Asian governments to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which will make it possible to bring all violators to justice, and to take legislative action on crimes against humanity in their respective territories.
An Asia Regional Mechanism for Human Rights
Human rights in the region will receive a boost when the governments cooperate to develop an Asian mechanism for implementing human rights across national boundaries. A regional human rights commission and an Asian human rights court similar to European models would greatly contribute to a wholesome concept of “Asian-ness” and Asian solidarity to protect and promote human rights. There is already widespread debate on the need for a regional mechanism. The time is ripe to pursue this goal with greater seriousness and make it practically possible. While agreement on such a mechanism is the work of governments, its content will depend heavily on the participation of civil society. If human rights are to become something real in Asian countries much improvement is needed. The Asian Human Rights Commission earnestly hopes that the coming year will see greater determination towards this aim both from governments and the people of the region.