March 28, 2014
Dear President Obama,
Your scheduled trip to Asia in April presents key opportunities to raise human rights issues. We are writing to urge you to make these issues a central part of your trip’s agenda. In Tokyo and Seoul, we hope you will discuss new United Nations efforts to ensure accountability for crimes against humanity in North Korea. In Kuala Lumpur and Manila, we believe you should highlight deep-seated problems with respect to free speech and impunity for serious rights violations.
North Korea issues and the role of Japan and South Korea
A watershed moment has arrived for human rights issues in North Korea. A UN Commission of Inquiry for North Korea, tasked in 2013 with investigating crimes against humanity and making recommendations for accountability, has recently delivered its final report to the UN Human Rights Council, detailing massive past and ongoing abuses by the North Korean government. It will present its findings at the United Nations in New York in April.
The fact that serious crimes have occurred in North Korea is unsurprising, but the scope and scale of the crimes revealed in the new report is shocking. Documented abuses include summary executions, enslavement, rape, forced abortions, abductions, enforced disappearances, and intentional starvation. The report describes a “systematic, widespread attack against all populations ... who pose a threat to the political system” via a system of prison camps, collective punishments, and executions. The crimes committed within this system against the civilian population, the report states, collectively amount to “extermination,” a crime against humanity.
The report also finds that the widespread starvation that occurred countrywide in the 1990s, and which has occurred in some areas more recently, was the result of intentional acts and omissions by government officials which also amount to crimes against humanity.
In presenting the report, the Commission of Inquiry noted that the “gravity, scale and nature of violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” The commission’s chairman, former Australian supreme court justice Michael Kirby, repeatedly compared the severity of abuse to those committed by Nazis and the Khmer Rouge, invoking the well-known international obligation in the wake of those abuses – “never again.”
On March 28, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution accepting the commission’s report and recommending that the UN General Assembly, its parent body, refer the report to the Security Council to consider options for creating systems of accountability. These would include referring the situation in North Korea to the International Criminal Court (ICC), or creating a special tribunal that could address crimes committed before 2002, when the ICC’s jurisdiction came into existence.
Recommendations for Visits to Tokyo and Seoul
It is essential that the United States, Japan, and South Korea – along with other members of the international community – act on the commission’s recommendations and work together to prevent future crimes and ensure that North Korean officials are held accountable for the grave crimes they have committed.
We urge you to use your meetings with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Park Geun-hyeto to reach a common position on how to engage the UN system to advance accountability for crimes in North Korea.
More specifically, we recommend the adoption of a strategy to put North Korea on the agenda of the Security Council this year, with the tabling of a resolution either referring North Korea to the International Criminal Court or tasking the UN Secretary-General with the creation of an ad hoc tribunal.
No one should be naïve about the hopes for swift justice in North Korea. But pushing for accountability now – either through an ICC referral or ad hoc tribunal – is important. A standing body with investigatory powers to gather evidence for future proceedings will help bring about eventual justice and serve to deter at least some government leaders from committing new abuses. Part of this strategy will entail supporting a UN General Assembly resolution later this year, endorsing the Commission of Inquiry report and transmitting the report to the Security Council with recommendations.
We urge you to work toward such a common strategy with Japan and South Korea, and recommend that you make your position public during the April visit.
The historic nature of your visit to Malaysia, the first by a US president since 1966, ensures that your public comments there will receive extensive attention in the domestic media, including the largely government-controlled print and broadcast media. We urge that you use the public platforms available to you to highlight key areas of concern and the need for change in Malaysia’s problematic human rights record.
Malaysia has made enormous economic strides in recent decades and has begun some legal reforms, but civil and political rights remain under serious threat, squeezed between highly restrictive laws and abusive implementation.
The government continues to use vague, overbroad, and outdated laws to prosecute or harass political opponents. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was recently prosecuted and convicted for the second time in his political career under Malaysia’s colonial-era “sodomy” law, while the colonial-era Sedition Act has been used against 73-year-old lawyer and opposition politician Karpal Singh, among other opposition figures. Even newer “reformed” laws, like the 2012 Peaceful Assembly Act, have been used to prosecute activists, as with the “Black 505” opposition leaders charged with protesting after the disputed 2013 elections.
Another outdated law, the 1966 Societies Act, was cited this year by the Home Ministry in declaring illegal a coalition of human rights groups called COMANGO that had worked with the UN Human Rights Council to highlight human rights problems in Malaysia. The government has long used the country’s Printing Presses and Publication Act and the Communications and Multimedia Act to regulate and pressure media companies and outlets. Opening a newspaper in Malaysia still requires approval from the government; criticizing the government can lead the government to close a media company down.
In sum, the Malaysian government has continued to criminalize acts that should not be criminal – marching in protests, criticizing government leaders, engaging in consensual adult sexual activity, exercising rights of freedom of association and expression – and then utilizes the laws for politically motivated prosecutions.
Police abuse also remains a serious human rights problem in Malaysia, including unjustified shootings, mistreatment and deaths in police custody, the excessive use of force to disperse public protests. Meaningful accountability for abuses is lacking. Investigations into police abuse are conducted primarily by the police, who do not act transparently or impartially in their inquiries, and there is no effective independent oversight mechanism to step in when police investigations falter. The result is heightened public mistrust of the police and the government at large.
The government also continues to deny due process to certain criminal suspects. A new law, the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012, allows detention for up to 28 days without judicial review and indefinite pretrial detention.
Government leaders routinely speak out against ethnic and religious minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Religious minorities continue to face harassment and spurious prosecutions. LGBT groups face particular persecution, with officials banning group events or using offensive and false allegations to undermine their activities, as in the case of a recent event that organizers were forced to cancel after extremist religious groups filed complaints with the police and denounced the event in the media, deeming it a “deviant sex festival.” The police banned a similar 2011 peaceful LGBT gathering, with activists forcibly dispersed. We are particularly concerned about the frequent arrests of transgender women under state-level Sharia (Islamic law) provisions prohibiting cross-dressing, arrests that sometimes occur during violent police raids.
We encourage you to use your public comments in Malaysia to raise concerns about all the problems above. We believe that mention of LGBT rights in particular will have a positive and long-lasting effect in Malaysia, both in creating space for a community under threat, and in setting the tone for a more civil public debate on this issue in the future.
The United States should make good use of its increasingly close relationship with the Philippines to press the government to follow through on its repeated pledges to improve respect for human rights and accountability for serious abuses. While the administration of President Benigno Aquino III has made several key reforms, it has failed to match its rhetoric with meaningful action to end impunity for extrajudicial killings, torture, and enforced disappearances.
While abuses overall have decreased since the previous Arroyo administration, killings continue with alarming frequency, and have begun to rise again, according to local rights groups. Those killed include many leftist political activists, environmental advocates and local politicians. In many cases, victims earlier reported receiving threats from local authorities or security forces.
The last year featured a major surge in killings of journalists in the Philippines: 12 were killed in 2013, bringing the total number of media workers killed since Aquino took office to 26. In only six of those cases have police even arrested suspects. The Committee to Protect Journalists designates the Philippines as the second most dangerous country in the world for journalists, after Iraq, and the third worst in terms of impunity for media killings. Authorities in a number of urban areas have been implicated in local “death squads,” which execute petty criminals, drug dealers, and street children.
We also remain concerned by abuses committed by the Philippine military and various insurgent groups, including the communist New People’s Army and Moro (Muslim) rebel groups. During fighting in September 2013 between Moro rebels and government forces in the southern city of Zamboanga, Human Rights Watch documented violations by both sides, including the use of human shields by the rebels. Detainees in government custody, including several children, told Human Rights Watch of torture and other abuse by government security forces.
We urge you to raise concerns about extrajudicial killings and abuses by security forces during your dialogues with President Aquino. The government of the Philippines has begun to address the legacy of abuses, but has done too little to make accountability real. We recommend that you use the promise of further US military cooperation as a continuing incentive for the government to investigate and prosecute abuse cases, and make clear that future closer ties will be in jeopardy if the Philippines does not improve its record.