Human rights advocates in Asia under attack
In February, hundreds of Filipino participants in the peace process, environmental activists and human rights defenders were labeled “terrorists” by their own government. The security of the individuals on this list is at stake, and some have fled the Philippines.
The UN independent expert on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli Corpuz, is on this list. This followed the vilification only months before of another UN independent expert, Agnès Callamard, who deals with extrajudicial executions. President Duterte declared that he wanted to slap her, and later announced that he would like to throw other UN human rights officials to the crocodiles. The Commission on Human Rights was threatened with a zero budget and its former chair, Sen. Leila de Lima, is in detention on drug charges.
Even if extreme, such sweeping threats against hundreds of civil society representatives, defenders of human rights, and UN experts labeled “terrorists” in the Philippines are symptomatic of worrying regional trends.
If governments in the region can target high-profile human rights defenders and those associated with the UN with impunity, what is the message to others at community level who are not afforded the same visibility? This is likely to increase fear in those seeking the protection of the UN and other human rights actors.
Human rights advocates the world over are increasingly threatened, attacked and silenced. The message is clear. No one is immune and many advocates across the region will be unable to operate freely and without fear of retaliation.
In the run-up to the 2018 national elections in Cambodia, the government has cracked down on the opposition, independent media and civil society. In February it publicly targeted human rights defenders, including election watchdogs, groups that had monitored the 2017 commune elections, and land activists accused of supporting a purported foreign-backed “revolution” to topple the government.
Within the general backlash against human rights in various corners, there have been a number of cases where individuals faced intimidation or reprisals after sharing information with the UN or participating in a UN activity.
In Myanmar, there were reports of violent reprisals by Tatmadaw, the armed forces, against civilians who met with Yanghee Lee, the UN independent expert on Myanmar, following her visit to Rakhine State. These include killings, beatings, and rape. Ms Lee received credible information that Tatmadaw attacked a village in Rakhine a couple of days after her visit as a measure against the community members who spoke to her during a visit to the village in 2017. The Tatmadaw gathered the village men and women together and subjected them to severe mistreatment, beatings, and assaults.
Bogus accusations of abetting terrorism are a common justification that we hear from governments to defend the targeting of the UN’s important civil society partners. We have countless cases of advocates charged with terrorism, blamed for cooperation with foreign entities, or accused of damaging the reputation or security of the state.
I recently met with a group of human rights defenders from across Southeast and South Asia about their experiences, which in some cases have been made worse by speaking out or sharing information with the UN. The stories about these reprisals were common: They have been charged with defamation, blasphemy and disinformation. They are increasingly threatened and targeted for their work; indeed some have been labeled as terrorists. There were also accusations of activists being drug addicts or mentally unwell.
Some governments feel threatened by any dissent. They label human rights concerns as “illegal outside interference” in their internal affairs, as an attempt to overthrow regimes, or as an attempt to impose alien “Western” values.
Opposition to economic development and investment projects seems to incite particular ire. Agribusiness, extractive industries, and large-scale energy initiatives, including those that involve indigenous peoples’ land, often bear the brunt of the backlash.
Women’s rights activists and advocates of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons seem to be particularly targeted. Many are ostracized by their communities, labeled as outcasts, or branded as immoral. Sexual violence is part of this backlash, including rape threats.
Those working for religious freedom have been called “anti-Islam,” and they and their families are threatened or harassed. When advocacy for religious tolerance intersects with that of women’s rights and sexual freedom, the stakes can be even higher.
Civil society in the region face visa restrictions, confiscation of passports, travel bans, and arbitrary police investigations and detention. Activists’ movements are thwarted and their interactions with those abroad restricted. They are facing administrative and legal repercussions for their advocacy—selectively applied laws, or measures undermining their legal legitimacy or ability to receive funding to survive.
In some of the most extreme cases, arbitrary detention, denial of medical treatment, extrajudicial killings, and disappearance are the result.
Strength and resilience
Despite what they are facing, the strength and resilience of many of the defenders that we deal with is heartening, and we owe it to them to support their efforts. There are many countries where civil society remains vibrant, and we are working closely with them.
Governments that are worried about dissent should see the expression of new ideas as an opportunity for dialogue. At the same time, violations by nonstate actors must be taken as seriously as those by government actors. The international community must continue to be attentive to these worrying trends.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is important for the collective human rights community, and the UN membership at large, to recall the circumstances that led to the development of this Declaration and its unanimous adoption. The Declaration is the most translated document in the world, available in more than 500 languages, and it is as relevant today as it was on the day that it was proclaimed.
The fact that a growing number of governments (all subject to the Declaration) are engaged in intimidation and reprisals against members of civil society whose “crime” is that they cooperate with the UN would have the original drafters of that noble document turning in their graves.
We are taking these allegations seriously, and addressing particular incidents of reprisals with governments. Civil society has to be heard—for the sake of us all.
Andrew Gilmour is the UN assistant secretary general for human rights, New York.
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