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Defending Human Rights
The fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the likely adoption of a Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in the U.N. General Assembly in December were reminders of how important Asian organizations and activists had become in the international human rights movement. With a long-established tradition of nongovernmental community development work in South and Southeast Asia, there was a foundation to build on when a series of political emergencies arose in the 1970s that led to the creation of new human rights organizations. That tradition may also have helped Asian organizations lead the way in fusing straightforward documentation of rights abuses with efforts to extend political, civil, social, and economic rights to disadvantaged social groups.

Of all the countries in the region, the human rights network in India is probably the oldest, going back to the Gandhian movement that flowered as India’s independence struggle reached its height. Groups dedicated to helping the poor and disadvantaged emerged throughout India in the 1940s and 1950s, but most were community projects, restricted in geographic scope. A separate stream of Indian rights activism that emerged about the same time was inspired by Ambedkar, an architect of the Indian constitution and champion of low-caste communities. The Catholic church in the Philippines provided another important precursor of a human rights network, but it was not until the 1970s that human rights organizations, consciously using international law as a framework for their activities, began to emerge in response to specific political crises at home. Indira Gandhi’s Emergency in 1975 prompted the establishment of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties in India; Marcos’s declaration of martial law in 1972 gave rise to the Free Legal Assistance Group; a bloody coup in Thailand in 1973 produced the Union for Civil Liberties; and a general absence of due process combined with a repressive political structure produced the Legal Aid Institute of Indonesia in 1971. The first human rights organization, short-lived, to appear in China was in 1979, when Ren Wanding founded the League for Human Rights to work on behalf of his colleagues arrested in connection with the Democracy Wall movement.

The focus of all of these and other organizations that emerged in the region at the time was very specifically restoration of political and civil rights at home. They were founded and staffed, for the most part, by lawyers, in many cases defending their professional colleagues. There was some contact with other human rights groups in the region, largely through one of the oldest regional organizations, the Asian Cultural Forum on Development or ACFOD, based in Bangkok, or in some cases, through church linkages, like the Christian Conference of Asia. There was little sense, however, of taking part in an international movement.

That relative isolation changed by the early 1980s, thanks to dedicated and far-sighted efforts by individual activists to make the linkages among groups as well as the availability of foreign funding for travel and conferences. Moreover, the focus of Asian human rights work shifted as the political situation in the region became less repressive: away from a focus on political detainees to a broader concern with disadvantaged populations: women, indigenous groups, ethnic minorities. The explosion of environmental activism in the early 1980s reinforced that focus.

At the time of the Asian preparatory meeting for the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, representatives of more than one hundred rights organizations in the Asia-Pacific region converged on Bangkok to present a view of human rights that differed radically from their governments’ “Asian values”-driven perspective. Women’s groups were among the best organized, but the existence of an impressive regional network, well-versed in international human rights standards, was obvious to all.

The widespread availability of the Internet in the late 1990s has further solidified links among Asian rights organizations and between them and their international counterparts. It has also enabled local human rights organizations to mobilize on issues that take place outside the country where they are based. From January to June, groups working to abolish child labor participated in the “Global March Against Child Labor,” an initiative spearheaded by the South Asian Coalition Against Child Servitude (SACCS) that included both children and adults from over 700 NGOs and trade unions in ninety-seven countries. The six-month march wound its way through Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe, culminating in Geneva in June 1998, when discussions began on a new convention on child labor at the International Labor Conference. In March the International Migrant Rights Watch Committee, an international network of organizations dedicated to migrant workers’ rights in coalition with NGOs and NGO networks in some 150 countries, launched the Global Campaign for Ratification of the Migrant Workers Convention. In August, eighteen activists from Southeast Asia, Australia and the U.S. entered Burma to distribute leaflets commemorating the 1988 uprising. When Anwar Ibrahim was arrested in Malaysia, human rights organizations in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and elsewhere were busy organizing protest letters and demonstrations, and pro-democracy activists throughout the region flocked to Internet news sources in record numbers.

Cooperation between governmental human rights institutions and NGOs in the region seemed to be on the increase. In Jakarta in September, the Asia Pacific Human Rights NGOs Facilitating Team expressed appreciation for the efforts of the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions to encourage regional cooperation by official agencies such as the national human rights commissions in the Philippines, India and Indonesia and urged them to take greater advantage of NGO knowledge and expertise. In general, governmental human rights commissions in the region made important contributions to the promotion of rights but were sometimes hampered by lack of sufficient resources and the failure of other government forces to cooperate with them or follow through on their recommendations, particularly in the area of prosecutions.

As in past years, NGOs in Asia used a variety of methods to strategize on common concerns, including large regional meetings, such as those held around the the Asia-Europe meeting (ASEM) in April or the annual Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in November, where hundreds of NGOs discussed the impact of economic globalization on human rights protection; and smaller meetings that occurred throughout the year on such themes as migrant worker rights, media freedom, HIV/AIDS, refugee protection, caste violence in India, trafficking of women, nuclear testing in South Asia, prisoners’ rights, child labor, medical approaches to human rights abuse, and forced or uncompensated displacement for hydroelectric dams and other development projects that lacked impartial mechanisms for challenging eviction proceedings. Training sessions on human rights fact-finding anddocumentation, legal advocacy, and information technology were also important venues of regional cooperation among NGOs.

By 1998, the focus of the human rights movement in Asia was shifting again in response to economic and political developments in the region. A greater emphasis on civil and political rights seemed to be returning in response to changes in government and greater freedom in Thailand, South Korea, and Indonesia, or the perceived danger to freedom in Hong Kong and Pakistan. At the same time, the concern for social and economic rights had not diminished, making the Asian wing of the human rights movement probably more firmly rooted in the notion of indivisibility of political and economic rights than many of their Western counterparts. At year’s end, only a handful of Asian countries had no human rights organizations at all—Afghanistan, Brunei, Bhutan, North Korea, Burma, Singapore, and Vietnam among them—but these countries were the focus of human rights attention from within the region.





China and Tibet


Indonesia and East Timor




Sri Lanka





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