Human Rights WatchWorld Report ContentsDownloadPrintOrderHRW Homepage

World map HRW/Asia



Europe and Central Asia

Middle East and North Africa

Special Issues and Campaigns

United States


Children’s Rights

Women’s Human Rights


The Role of the International Community

United Nations
The U.N. system for protection of human rights had both gains and setbacks during the year in terms of acceptance of its role by Asian governments. The biggest setback was China’s successful lobbying to persuade its Western trading partners to abandon any effort at a resolution critical of its practices at the fifty-fourth session of the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. The gains included more acceptance by the region’s governments of the legitimacy of the U.N. system, including by China, which hosted a visit by U.N. High Commissioner Mary Robinson in September and signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in October ( see China chapter). Other important examples of U.N. oversight in the region included a May visit to Sri Lanka by the special representative of the secretary-general for children in armed conflict and one to Vietnam by the special rapporteur on religious intolerance in October. Following Soeharto’s resignation in Indonesia, the new government ratified the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and ILO Convention 87 on freedom of association. The Cambodia Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (COHCHR) in Phnom Penh continued to do crucial monitoring and investigation work in the face of harassment and threats from the government, and an agreement establishing an office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Jakarta was signed in August. Burma was the last hold-out; at this writing, the special rapporteur on Burma had still not been allowed to set foot in the country. Afghanistan remained a major concern of the United Nations, with a resolution of concern over the deteriorating human rights situation there passed at the Commission on Human Rights in April and a devastating report by the Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan; that concern had little visible impact on the country, however. Conflict resolution efforts by the secretary-general’s office in East Timor, by contrast, showed the potential for having some positive human rights implications, particularly if an August 5 agreement between Portugal and Indonesia, brokered by the secretary-general, led to a reduction in the Indonesian military presence.

All regional organizations involving East and Southeast Asia were preoccupied with the economic crisis during the year. The crisis dominated the agenda of the second summit of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) held in London on April 3-4, but press reports gave the gathering generally low marks in terms of substantive achievements. The twenty-five leaders reaffirmed the importance of the IMF, set up an ASEM Trust Fund to transfer financial skills to Asia, and agreed to work cooperatively in seeking to end sexual exploitation of children—the one human rights issue that everyone could agree on.

In July, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) annual meeting provided evidence of changing attitudes in the region. With Burma in mind, Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuan proposed a change in practice that would allow member states to raise critical questions about each other’s policies. That proposal, called “flexible engagement,” was quickly shot down by other members, but growing differences among Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, and the sharp criticism of the arrest of Anwar Ibrahim from President Habibie of Indonesia and President Estrada of the Philippines suggested that the Thai initiative might well resurface.

Also in July, the seven members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), at their tenth summit, reaffirmed their commitment to the goal of establishing a South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) by the year 2001 and to the eradication of poverty in the region. Future goals included the signing of a regional convention against trafficking of women and children for prostitution at the next summit to be held in Kathmandu, Nepal in the second half of 1999. SAARC was also working toward the formulation of a social charter focusing on a broad range of social targets to be achieved across the region in the areas of population stabilization, empowerment of women, protection of children, and the promotion of health and nutrition.

The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit scheduled for mid-November in Kuala Lumpur promised to be dominated more by the Malaysian political scene and the imprisonment of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim than by any of the critical economic issues facing the region.

International Financial Institutions
The IMF and the World Bank played highly visible, and in the case of the IMF, highly controversial roles during the year. IMF prescriptions for the Asia crisis, as noted above, were seen by leading economists, Asian officials, nongovernmental organizations, and, in some cases, the World Bank itself, as worsening the ailment. The World Bank, in its efforts to create a workable social safety net for those most affected by the economic crisis, reached out more than in the past to nongovernmental organizations. Developing anti-corruption strategies in the region was a particular focus of the World Bank; these included not only better auditing procedures,including of the bank’s own projects, but more attention to the watchdog function of a free press and independent judiciary. Both the IMF and the World Bank went further than before in acknowledging the linkage between economic and political developments, but trying to translate that recognition into policy proved difficult. On the one hand, some Asian activists took the position that no IMF funds should be disbursed without demanding total political reform from the recipient countries; others argued that the U.S. Treasury Department was exerting too heavy a hand in setting a behind-the-scenes political agenda that would only serve to benefit U.S. corporations and investment banks. The “moral hazard” argument—that IMF bailouts just served to reinforce the bad practices of irresponsible lenders—struck a responsive chord in the Asian human rights community. Virtually all activists monitoring IMF projects agreed that more transparency in IMF negotiations with recipient countries was essential.

A debate over the fate of the World Bank’s Inspection Panel remained unresolved as of this writing. The Inspection Panel, a quasi-independent body created to hold the bank accountable for violations of its policies and procedures and address the grievances of those adversely affected by bank-financed projects, played an important role in exposing abuses in a bank project in the Singrauli region of India. The panel’s role lent support to arguments that its role should be strengthened rather than weakened.

Donors and Investors
Donor concern focused mainly on helping to support social safety net programs in countries hit hard by the economic crisis. The standard annual donor consortium meeting on Cambodia did not take place in 1998, as donors awaited the establishment of a stable and legitimate government following the July 1997 coup. Donor commitments to Pakistan and India were affected by the nuclear testing crisis, and human rights were given lower priority than security concerns, though child labor issues remained on the agenda of the World Bank. The donor consortium meeting on Indonesia in July focused on mobilizing emergency humanitarian aid.

For the most part, private investors were preoccupied with protecting their assets affected by the crisis, but in some cases, notably Indonesia, foreign companies recognized the link between human rights and political stability and raised rights issues with Indonesian authorities. In Burma, investors stayed away, discouraged by a deteriorating economic situation as well as by the country’s pariah status. Similarly, in Cambodia, few companies appeared interested in going back in until the political situation stabilized.





China and Tibet


Indonesia and East Timor




Sri Lanka





Copyright © 1999
Human RIghts Watch