Human Rights Watch World Report 2001 - Asia overview

In East and Southeast Asia, governments relied on Asian initiatives during the year to address economic, political, and human rights issues. Gone was the rhetoric of "Asian values" with its pre-financial crisis premise that economic development and protection of individuals rights were incompatible. In its place was simply a determination, from democratic and authoritarian governments alike, to show that solutions to Asian problems were to be found within the region, despite the diversity of cultures and political interests involved. South Asia, as always, was a region apart, so divided by rivalries and security concerns that regional cooperation was all but impossible.

On the economic side, one example of East Asian regionalism was the movement toward developing the equivalent of an Asian Monetary Fund involving China, Japan, South Korea and the ten countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It had a political parallel with the all-Asian resistance in late 1999 to an international tribunal for East Timor, balanced by the prominent Asian participation in the U.N. Transitional Administration for East Timor (UNTAET) in which peacekeeping forces were headed first by a Filipino and then a Thai. In October 2000, South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to ease tensions with North Korea, a wholly homegrown initiative. At the governmental level, the "We'll do it our way" stance was partly a case of resistance to solutions imposed from outside but also one of perceived common interest in building regional strength across a variety of fields – including human rights.

Asian regionalism was helped by the fact that the influence of the international donor community was near an all-time low, although aid levels were never higher: witness the helpless outrage of donor countries during the year over the treatment of women in Afghanistan; the attacks on minorities in

India; the aftermath of the October 1999 coup in Pakistan; the continuing restrictions on Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma; Indonesia's failure to stop militia violence in West Timor; the obstructions placed by Cambodia in the way of a tribunal to try the Khmer Rouge; the arrests of political and religious activists in China; or the coup and hostage crisis in Fiji in May. In all these countries, domestic political imperatives far outweighed any fear of international reaction, and as it turned out, there was not much to fear from donors worried that pressure would inflict more damage on themselves than on the offending country.

Unlike the years immediately prior to the financial crisis when East and Southeast Asian governments steadfastly refrained from criticizing each other (South Asian governments felt no such hesitation), Asian regionalism in 2000 was more accommodating of different viewpoints. This may have reflected the impact of democratization in important countries in the region such as Thailand, whose foreign minister broke ranks with other ASEAN countries and openly criticized Burma's suppression of opposition political activities. It also reflected distrust between the big regional powers, China, India, and Japan, and suspicion within the less powerful countries about the long-term political and economic agendas of the big three.

The phenomenon of finding strength as a region without necessarily constituting a solid political bloc may also have reflected the many internal conflicts that strained bilateral relations. Kashmir remained a constant source of tension between India and Pakistan. Indonesia's inability to control the conflict in Aceh worried Malaysia, just across the Straits of Malacca. The raid into eastern Malaysia by guerrillas of the Abu Sayaf wing in the southern Philippines led to the deportation of thousands of Filipinos from Malaysia and strained that relationship. The ongoing ethnic insurgencies in Burma affected relations with India, Bangladesh, and Thailand, all of which had to shelter thousands of refugees from those conflicts.

Both governments and regional and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were committed, where possible, to regional approaches to resolving regional human rights problems such as exploitation of migrant labor, human trafficking, and child prostitution. There was less support among governments for the international system for protecting human rights. Not only did China work harder than ever to escape censure at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, weakening that body as a result, but the Australian government in September bitterly rejected the actions of several U.N. bodies that had questioned its treatment of aboriginals and refugees.

Asian NGOs as a group, however, remained an important voice for the expansion of the international system, pushing – as their governments, with few exceptions, did not – for ratification of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, an end to the use of child soldiers, and implementation of human rights commitments made at the Beijing Women's Conference in 1995.

Human Rights Developments

In general, a rising concern with justice for past abuses did not translate into effective measures to prevent new ones. Serious problems remained in terms of protecting civilians in areas of conflict; ensuring basic civil rights under authoritarian governments; and providing protection to refugees, migrants, and trafficking victims.

The Pinochet precedent was very much on the minds of governments and NGOs in the region during the year, as accountability for past abuses was an issue as never before. In South Korea, efforts were underway to hold the U.S. accountable for the No Gun Ri massacre in July 1950, during the Korean war, in which some 400 civilians may have died. Throughout the countries occupied by Japan during World War II, women forced into sexual slavery as "comfort women" were still campaigning for individual compensation from the Japanese government. Relatives of families of those killed or unaccounted for in the Thai army's May 1992 firing on unarmed demonstrators demanded and got release of classified government documents about the incident and continued to demand the prosecution of those responsible. Relatives of Tiananmen Square victims filed a civil complaint in a U.S. court in September against Li Peng, then Chinese premier, now head of the National People's Congress in Beijing. In Cambodia, international pressure forced the Hun Sen government to agree reluctantly to a tribunal over which it would not have complete control to try former Khmer Rouge leaders for crimes against humanity committed from 1975 to 1979. The final establishment of the tribunal, which would be based in Phnom Penh and have a majority of Cambodian over non-Cambodian judges, was still awaiting action by the Cambodian parliament by late October. A special panel of the Dili district court in East Timor was set up in June to try those responsible for crimes against humanity and serious crimes committed during the period January to October 1999.

In part because of a rising interest in accountability, the International Criminal Court attracted more attention in the region. By the end of the year, New Zealand and Fiji had ratified the Rome Statute while South Korea, Thailand, Bangladesh, Australia, the Solomon Islands, and the Marshall Islands had all signed. A conference of Asian NGOs, held in Bangkok in June, decided to make ratification of the statute a key priority for regional advocacy.

Even as moves to punish past abuses were gathering strength, serious human rights problems continued to plague the region. Some were linked to separatist or nationalist movements and governments' abuse of security laws to detain, torture, "disappear," or kill suspectedopponents. Some were classic examples of the refusal of authoritarian governments to tolerate peaceful political opposition. Others were linked to communal violence, still others to the failure of governments in the region to protect refugees and migrants.

In all countries where armed rebellion against the central government was underway, all parties to the conflict were responsible for abuse. In Sri Lanka, civilians in the northeast of the country were caught in the middle between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and government forces. In Kashmir, Indian security forces used draconian counterinsurgency measures, including arbitrary arrest, torture, and staged "encounter killings", against Muslim citizens who were suspected of supporting guerrilla activity, while armed Islamists were believed responsible for mass killings of Hindu civilians. In Nepal, an ongoing Maoist insurgency continued to spread from four midwestern hill districts to encompass nearly the entire nation. In Aceh, in Indonesia, the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM, Free Aceh Movement) was reported to have killed suspected informers; government security forces were responsible for the torture and killing of suspected GAM supporters. Separatist conflicts were also underway in West Papua, Indonesia; northeast India; Xinjiang, in western China; and around all of Burma's borders. In Laos, armed insurgency from ethnic Hmong in the highlands and ethnic Lao rebels based in Thailand and Laos increased during the year, and in June, the government initiated a national security alert after a series of unclaimed bomb blasts were attributed to those Lao insurgents. Governments tended to deal harshly with any rebels arrested, sometimes judicially, sometimes extrajudicially, but their prosecutions of their own agents for human rights violations were rare. Several South Asian governments responded to internal armed conflicts by introducing or enhancing existing anti-terrorism legislation or emergency powers.

Fundamental rights to freedom of association, expression, and assembly were tightly restricted in North Korea, Burma, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. China, despite some liberalization, still banned any group or publication that it considered a threat to the Communist Party's hold on power.

But even in more open societies, like Malaysia, Singapore, Pakistan, and Cambodia, politics could be a risky occupation, as the trials of Anwar Ibrahim and Nawaz Sharif made clear. The use of draconian internal security legislation remained an issue in many of the region's democratic or democratizing countries. In Bangladesh, for example, the government signed the Public Security Act into law in January, affording sweeping powers to the police and circumventing guarantees of due process.

Where public advocacy was possible, human rights defenders were working toward legislative change. In South Korea, for example, President Kim Dae-Jung announced in August his willingness to repeal the harsh National Security Law, as recommended by the United Nations Human Rights Committee and demanded by a coalition of more than 200 local rights organizations; as of October, it was still on the books, but former prisoners who had been unfairly detained under it by previous administrations became legally eligible for rehabilitation and compensation. (In fact, a 1999 law made anyone who had suffered detention, job loss, or expulsion from universities as a result of involvement in pro-democracy activities eligible for "restoration of honor" and compensation.) In India, NGOs campaigned against the introduction of the Prevention of Terrorism Bill into parliament.

In much of the region, communal, ethnic, or caste tensions were caused or exacerbated by government actions. In India, Hindu nationalist policies of the ruling party encouraged attacks on Dalits ("untouchables"), Muslims, and Christians. In China, perception of organized meditation groups as a potential political threat led to widespread persecution of Falun Gong practitioners and members of other qi gong groups. Ethnic tensions rooted in longstanding social and economic grievances and a perception on the part of indigenous elites of dispossession by "migrants," led to the coup in Fiji in May and the attempted coup in the Solomon Islands in June. In Fiji, many of the "migrants" were in fact third- and fourth-generation Fijians. In the Moluccas, in Indonesia, a bitter communal conflict with similar socioeconomic roots was fueled by the participation of security forces in the conflict, with the army largely siding with Muslims and the police with Christians. There was not a single ethnic or communal conflict in the region that was reducible to "ancient hatreds," and impartial government policies, had they been in effect, could have gone a long way to reducing the potential for violence.

Protecting refugees, migrants, and victims of trafficking was a huge issue across the region, made more complicated by the fact that it was, by definition, transnational. To combat trafficking of Thai women to Japan, for example, both the Thai and Japanese governments needed to reform legislation and crack down on corruption of police and immigration officials. To protect foreign migrant workers against abuse in Malaysia or South Korea, countries exporting labor needed to prosecute illegal labor recruiters while the receiving countries needed to step up investigations and prosecutions of abusive employers.

The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted the January 20 Asia-Pacific Symposium on the Trafficking in Persons, but the conference did not generate any concrete preventive measures. The governments of the United States and the Philippines organized a conference of the Asian Regional Initiative on Trafficking of Women and Children (ARIAT) from March 29-31 in Manila. That conference did produce an action plan for tackling human trafficking in the region.

Throughout the region, huge numbers of refugees and internally displaced people continued to need protection. On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) only five Asian countries were parties to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or to its 1967 Protocol. Serious issues of refugee protection arose even in some of those five during the year. In Australia, for example, a riot in August at an immigration detention center in Woomera, South Australia, drew international attention to the government's harsh treatment of undocumented migrants. In China, reports of forcible return of North Korean refugees were almost impossible to verify because UNHCR was allowed no access to the area concerned. In some countries, protection in the host country was the problem. Many refugees from East Timor were virtual hostages of militia leaders in Indonesian West Timor, for example. In others, the country from which refugees fled obstructed their efforts to return. Despite international pressure to secure the right to return for approximately 100,000 Bhutanese refugees living in camps in Nepal since late 1990 and 1991, Bhutan continued to resist proposals for their repatriation. The UNHCR pledged to continue its voluntary yearly repatriation of thousands of Afghan refugees from Pakistan and Iran; the refugees returned to face ongoing civil war and severe violations of human rights.

In many countries that offered little or no protection for refugees, desperate asylum-seekers tried to enter the workforce of the host country, blurring the line between refugees and migrants, and making deportation of undocumented migrants tantamount in many cases to refoulement. This was the case with three groups of Burmese refugees: ethnic Shan refugees in Thailand, ethnic Chin in India; and ethnic Rohingya in Malaysia.

Protection of the internally displaced remained weak in some countries and non-existent in others. Many of the estimated one million internally displaced in Sri Lanka faced restrictions on fundamental freedoms and discrimination at the hands of Sri Lankan security forces; therewere even allegations that army and police used displaced villagers as forced labor north of Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka. The Indonesian government for much of the year obstructed efforts of international agencies to assist the more than 300,000 Indonesians displaced by the communal conflict in the Moluccas. By October, some aid was getting through. In Afghanistan, aid agencies faced an ethical dilemma of whether to continue to provide assistance in light of the ruling Taliban's policies on women when to halt all assistance could have a disastrous impact on the displaced population. A Taliban offensive in northeastern Afghanistan resulted in a massive exodus from Takhar province into neighboring Badakshan. Up to 90,000 were believed to be homeless, and a humanitarian crisis loomed as winter approached.

Defending Human Rights

Human rights work continued to be a dangerous occupation in some parts of Asia. Human rights activists across the region condemned the murder of Acehnese human rights defender Jafar Siddiq Hamzah, whose body was found outside Medan, Indonesia, three weeks after he "disappeared" on August 5. He was believed to have been killed by military forces, although as of October, Indonesian police investigators reported no leads to the identity of his killers. In other countries, local defenders took risks in reporting government abuses. Several Cambodian human rights defenders came under attack in August for reporting on alleged extrajudicial executions in Kratie province; afterwards, the defense ministry threatened to sue the main Cambodian human rights coalition. Chinese activists who campaigned to organize a new association to uphold the rights outlined in the two international rights covenants that China had signed were detained, tried, and imprisoned.

In some countries, human rights defenders moved into new and unaccustomed roles. In Malaysia, several leading activists stood for parliament in the November 1999 elections as an expression of opposition to the government's treatment of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. In Indonesia, by contrast, some human rights organizations found themselves in the position of advising the democratically elected government of Abdurrahman Wahid on policy. ELSAM, a rights advocacy organization, drafted legislation for a proposed truth commission.

Increasingly, governments were finding it in their interests to establish national human rights institutions. Malaysia established a commission, known by the acronym Suhakam, in April, and began receiving complaints shortly thereafter, primarily of police abuse. Nepal established a national commission in May. The Thai parliament passed legislation setting up a human rights commission in 1999 but only began appointing members in October 2000. In September, South Korea's Ministry of Justice submitted a bill establishing a national human rights commission to Congress; NGOs had opposed it because they wanted the commission to be more than an advisory body and to be more independent of the government than the bill envisaged. Cambodia has three semi-official human rights commissions, which are largely seen as partisan and ineffective: the Senate Human Rights Commission, the National Assembly Human Rights Commission, and the government's Human Rights Committee. In July, NGO leaders and government representatives established an informal working group to discuss establishing an independent national human rights commission. The Cambodian working group is a member of a regional working group based in the Philippines that is working to set up an ASEAN Human Rights Commission. National human rights institutions were already operating in India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Australia, and New Zealand.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

The U.N. had a high profile on human rights during the year, most prominently with respect to Afghanistan, Burma, East Timor and Cambodia. In the latter two countries, prosecutions of past abuses were high on the agenda. In East Timor, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the special rapporteurs on torture; extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; and violence against women conducted inquiries into grave abuses associated with the 1999 scorched earth campaign; UNTAET was responsible for further investigations and prosecutions. In Cambodia, negotiations over an international tribunal were conducted by the U.N's Office of Legal Affairs.

The OHCHR maintained field offices in Phnom Penh and Jakarta. While staff in the former included human rights monitoring in their brief, the Jakarta office was restricted to technical advisory services. High Commissioner Mary Robinson visited China, Indonesia, East Timor, and South Korea during the year; she was scheduled to return to China in November to work on a plan to give China technical assistance to bring its laws into conformity with international standards.

At the fifty-sixth session of the Commission on Human Rights in March, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan Kamal Hossain and Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women Radhika Coomraswamy submitted their reports based on research conducted in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 1999. Hossain found widespread violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by Taliban forces and commanders against ethnic Hazaras and Tajiks in central and northern Afghanistan. Eyewitness testimony included accounts of forced displacement of civilians, deliberate burning of houses and crops, summary executions of non-combatants, arbitrary detention and forced labor. In newly occupied areas of central and northern Afghanistan, the special rapporteur found that women and children were frequently separated from their families and transported by truck to other regions of the country or to Pakistan. There were also many accounts of young girls in these areas being forcibly married to Taliban commanders. Coomaraswamy's report drew attention to a rise in violence against Afghan women, including domestic violence, honor killings, and trafficking of Afghan refugee women in Pakistan.

Burma reacted in a similar fashion to the report in October of the special rapporteur on Myanmar, Rajsoomer Allah, who for the fifth consecutive year was not permitted to visit the country on which he was tasked to report.

Most of the regional reporting to the U.N. treaty bodies was fairly routine, but the highly critical conclusions by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to a report submitted by Australia helped provoke the Australian government's angry statement in September that it would not necessarily allow further visits by treaty bodies.

United States

The Clinton Administration took a selective interest in Asia. Securing normal trading relations with China was a priority; so was preventing any escalation of the conflict in Kashmir. By the end of the year, developing a dialogue with North Korea, building on Kim Dae-Jung's "sunshine policy," was also a high priority. A state visit to India drew Indo-U.S. relations closer than ever before; a state visit to Vietnam in November was expected to put relations on an important new, trade-focused footing. Indonesia was very much a center of attention, but it wasclear that neither the U.S., nor any other major international actor, knew exactly how to respond to a democratically chosen government that was so manifestly weak in terms of strategic vision and capacity to govern. The U.S. took an active role in supporting the UNTAET in East Timor and in pressing Indonesia to take action against militias in West Timor.

In general, trade and economic relations and strategic interests in the region took precedence over human rights, yet many Asian governments believed that the U.S. continued to give far too much attention to rights. Without any other international support, for example, the U.S. tried and failed to get a resolution critical of China adopted at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. The U.S. was the only donor at the World Bank-chaired Consultative Group on Indonesia meeting in October that suggested loans might be conditioned on Indonesia's progress toward resolving the refugee situation in West Timor.

The U.S. government's promotion of religious freedom – largely due to congressional pressure – drew a mixed response in Asia, appreciated by victims of persecution, seen by governments as meddling. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom held hearings on abuses in China, India and Pakistan, and religious freedom was expected to be a priority of Clinton's trip to Vietnam in November. In general, the impact of U.S. appeals or interventions was marginal.

The office of the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes took a strong interest in justice issues relating to possible crimes against humanity in East Timor and Cambodia.


Japanese diplomacy was at a post-Cold War peak this year, and human rights received attention as an important, if limited, component of Japanese policy in Asia. Japan hosted the G-8 summit in Okinawa (July 21-23), and continued to emphasize building economic and political relations with its neighbors in Southeast and South Asia; the prime minister toured South Asia for the first time in a decade. A pre-summit gathering of G-8 foreign ministers issued a statement endorsing "fundamental principles of democracy, the rule of law, human rights and an open economy" as "indispensable" in an era of globalization. But at the summit itself, the G-8 leaders side-stepped some of the most controversial issues.

Promoting reform and stability in Indonesia was a top priority for Japan, which hosted the annual donor meeting for Indonesia in October. It also provided major assistance for East Timor's reconstruction and urged a resolution of the crisis in West Timor. Japan maintained good relations with Burma, trying to nudge the military towards democratization but also helped to deflect criticism of Burma internationally. Japan continued its campaign to give full economic and political support to the Hun Sen government in Cambodia, while also urging its cooperation with the U.N. on a Khmer Rouge tribunal. Relations with China, despite a visit to Tokyo by Jiang Zemin late in the year, remained rocky, largely because of mutual wariness on security issues; human rights concerns were marginal to Japan's bilateral agenda with Beijing.

European Union

The European Union was active in promoting peaceful resolution of the conflicts in Sri Lanka (backing Norway's mediation offer) and Kashmir. The first ever E.U.-India summit took place in June. Following the October 12, 1999 coup in Pakistan, the E.U. quickly distanced itself from the military government, and only restored political dialogue with Islamabad in September 2000.

Otherwise, the E.U. was concerned with expanding economic relations across the region, capped by the third Asia-Europe Meeting (ASME) summit in Seoul in October, which brought together heads of state from fifteen European countries and ten Asian governments to discuss expanded economic cooperation.

The E.U. put a high priority on finalizing a trade agreement with China in the context of the WTO negotiations, while including human rights in its political dialogues and summit meetings. But the E.U.-China human rights dialogue received increased scrutiny during the year as it failed to deliver tangible results, and by year's end was under internal review.

During the year, the E.U. used its influence as a leading donor to support human rights and democratization in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Indonesia and East Timor. In the case of Burma, however, splits within the E.U. made it difficult to develop a stronger common position towards the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) following the SPDC's September crackdown. An E.U.-ASEAN meeting in Laos remained on the calendar for December.

World Bank

Two of the World Bank's top five loan recipients this year were in Asia (India, U.S. $1.8 billion and China, $1.67 billion). The social and economic consequences of the Asian financial crisis were key factors in sparking further reforms within the World Bank. Those reforms included more engagement with civil society, strong attention to combating corruption, and an interest in examining the bank's potential role in supporting basic judicial reforms.

World Bank President James Wolfensohn's extraordinary appeal to Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid urging an end the violence in West Timor had a major impact in Jakarta and helped frame an overall international agenda for dealing with the crisis.

The bank's emphasis on participation as an element of good governance led to consultations with civil society in advance of bank-convened donor meetings, with NGOs actually participating in some of the donor conferences, for example, on Indonesia and Cambodia. But in countries where NGOs were non-existent or tightly controlled, such as China and Vietnam, the bank effectively let the governments set the terms of any "consultation" with people likely to be affected by bank projects.

In East Timor, the bank was a key promoter of democratization efforts through a community empowerment project involving election of local councils to decide on development priorities.

A new World Bank report on Burma, leaked late in 1999, explicitly linked deteriorating economic and social conditions in Burma to the lack of progress on political reform and human rights. This set a useful precedent and example for the ongoing debate in Asia on the linkages between rights concerns and governance and development issues.

This report, Human Rights Watch's eleventh annual review of human rights practices around the globe, covers developments in seventy countries. It is released in advance of Human Rights Day, December 10, 2000, and describes events from November 1999 through October 2000.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.