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Human Rights in Asia
Friday, 08 June 2012 16:40

Amnesty International is a tough judge of human rights in all countries.  According to Amnesty, my home country "Australia continued to violate the rights of Indigenous Peoples, stripping essential services from Aboriginal homelands. Refugee policy favoured deterrence, with mandatory, indefinite and remote detention for asylum-seekers arriving by boat".

But its 2012 Annual Report on the state of the world's human rights highlights vividly the growing tensions between Asia's miraculous economic growth and the region's poor human rights record.  Set out below are some key extracts from this report.

As winds of political change blew in from the Middle East and North Africa, several governments in the Asia-Pacific region responded by increasing their efforts to retain power by repressing demands for human rights and dignity. At the same time, the success of uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt inspired human rights defenders, activists, and journalists in Asia to raise their own voices, using a combination of new technologies and old-fashioned activism to challenge violations of their rights.
Zhu Yufu was detained by Chinese authorities in March, with the prosecutor citing a poem as key evidence in support of the charge of “inciting subversion of state power”.  Here is the offending poem:

“It’s time, people of China! It’s time.
China belongs to everyone.
Of your own will
It’s time to choose what China shall be.”

Zhu Yufu, who had already spent nearly nine of the last 13 years in prison for demanding greater political freedom, was just one of dozens of critics, activists, and dissidents detained and harassed by the Chinese authorities after February in what has been one of the worst political crackdowns since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. In addition to Zhu Yufu, the long list of those detained, placed under illegal house arrest or subjected to enforced disappearance included Liu Xia, wife of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, lawyer Gao Zhisheng and Ai Weiwei, the globally renowned artist. In several cases, Chinese authorities tortured detainees to extract “confessions” and promises to avoid using social media or speaking to journalists or others about their mistreatment.

Here are some of Amnesty's reports on key Asian countries.


Fearful of a protest movement inspired by events in the Middle East and North Africa, in February the authorities unleashed one of the harshest crackdowns on political activists, human rights defenders and online activists since the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Harassment, intimidation, arbitrary and illegal detention, and enforced disappearances intensified against government critics. Ethnic minority regions were under heightened security as local residents protested against discrimination, repression and other violations of their rights. The authorities increased ongoing efforts to bring all religious practice within the control of the state; this included harsh persecution of some religious practitioners. China’s economic strength during the global financial crisis increased the country’s leverage in the domain of global human rights – mostly for the worse.

If there is one country that is worse than China, it is:

North Korea

The year ended with Kim Jong-un succeeding his father as absolute ruler of the country on 17 December, but there were no indications of an improvement in the country’s dismal human rights record. North Koreans continued to suffer violations of nearly the entire spectrum of their human rights. Six million North Koreans urgently needed food aid and a UN report found that the country could not feed its people in the immediate future. There were reports of the existence of numerous prison camps where arbitrary detention, forced labour, and torture and other ill-treatment were rife. Executions, including public executions, persisted. Collective punishment was common. Violations of freedom of expression and assembly were widespread.

Its southern neighbor is feted as a triumph of democracy, but ...

South Korea

The government increasingly invoked the National Security Law to restrict freedom of expression, particularly in the context of discussions pertaining to North Korea. The authorities closely monitored the internet and social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. There were no executions. Migrant workers remained vulnerable following the Constitutional Court’s ruling against job mobility and a government crackdown against undocumented migrants.

Singapore's elite believes that its benevolent dictatorship is superior to democracy, but:


Opposition candidates made small but unprecedented gains in the May parliamentary elections, winning six out of 87 seats. The government used restrictive laws to silence its critics, bringing criminal defamation cases against them and censoring the media. The death penalty, administrative detention and judicial caning were retained in law and practice.

Singapore's neighbors are very weak democracies:


The authorities unleashed a brutal campaign of repression when a mass movement for fair elections swept the capital in July. More than 1,600 people were detained after a violent crackdown on the peaceful demonstration. In September, the government announced its intention to replace the Internal Security Act (ISA) with new security laws.


Violence intensified in the internal armed conflict in southern Thailand, with insurgents increasingly targeting civilians and staging indiscriminate attacks in which civilians were killed. Security forces continued to torture and ill-treat detainees in the South. For the eighth consecutive year, no official was convicted of perpetrating human rights violations in the South, and none was prosecuted for deaths that occurred during the 2010 anti-government demonstrations. Authorities continued to persecute those peacefully expressing their opinion, primarily through the use of the lèse majesté law and Computer-related Crimes Act. Authorities tightened restrictions on asylum-seekers and refugees from Myanmar, particularly during massive flooding, and exploited migrant workers from neighbouring countries.


Indonesia assumed the chair of ASEAN and in May was elected to the UN Human Rights Council for a third consecutive term. The government strengthened the national police commission but police accountability mechanisms remained inadequate. The security forces faced persistent allegations of human rights violations, including torture and other ill-treatment and use of unnecessary and excessive force. Provincial authorities in Aceh increasingly used caning as a judicial punishment. Peaceful political activities continued to be criminalized in Papua and Maluku. Religious minorities suffered discrimination, including intimidation and physical attacks. Barriers to sexual and reproductive rights continued to affect women and girls. No executions were reported.

Unfortunately Burma's reforms are receiving more publicity than the government's continued violations of human rights.


The government enacted limited political and economic reforms, but human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law in ethnic minority areas increased during the year. Some of these amounted to crimes against humanity or war crimes. Forced displacement reached its highest level in a decade, and reports of forced labour their highest level in several years. Authorities maintained restrictions on freedom of religion and belief, and perpetrators of human rights violations went unpunished. Despite releasing at least 313 political prisoners during the year, authorities continued to arrest such people, further violating their rights by subjecting them to ill-treatment and poor prison conditions.

Despite its proud reputation as the world's biggest democracy ...


The government maintained its focus on economic growth, at times at the cost of protecting and promoting human rights within the country and abroad. Around 250 people were killed in ongoing clashes between armed Maoists and security forces in several central and eastern states. At least 40 people were killed in bomb attacks in Mumbai and Delhi. Anna Hazare’s campaign for comprehensive laws against corruption scored initial successes; however, Parliament failed to enact the proposed legislation. Adivasi (Indigenous) communities intensified their protests against corporate-led moves to acquire and mine their lands without free, prior and informed consent, resulting in suspension of some industrial projects. Authorities introduced new legal frameworks to reform land acquisition, rehabilitation and mining.

Human rights defenders faced the ire of both state and non-state agencies, with sedition and other politically motivated charges levelled against some. Many were threatened, harassed and intimidated, and at least four activists were killed. Authorities extended a standing invitation to all UN Special Procedures to visit the country. However, torture and other ill-treatment, extrajudicial executions, deaths in custody and administrative detentions remained rife in a number of states. New legal initiatives to outlaw torture had yet to yield results. Institutional mechanisms meant to protect human rights remained weak, and judicial processes were slow in ensuring justice for victims of past violations including extrajudicial executions and mass killings. This was despite new legislation introduced to ensure justice and reparations for victims of past communal violence. Past violations and abuses continued to remain outside the purview of ongoing peace initiatives on Nagaland and Assam. Courts sentenced at least 110 people to death, but, for the seventh successive year, no executions took place.


According to Nobel-prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, "development is freedom".  Amnesty International's annual report reminds us that dynamic Asia has experienced a lot more economic growth than development.



Amnesty International.  Annual Report 2012, "The state of the world's human rights".



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