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Asia: Freedom of Expression, Justice, Human Rights Defenders Under Threat

Letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

His Excellency Ban Ki-moon
United Nations

Dear Secretary-General,

We write to encourage you to use your upcoming visit to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and China to publicly address pressing human rights issues in the region. Beyond raising the important issues highlighted below with key leaders, we urge you to meet with respected human rights activists in the countries you visit.


We welcome your support for political reconciliation and the promotion of human rights and democracy in Thailand. The Thai government, however, continues to use draconian powers under the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation ("Emergency Decree") to suppress basic human rights and provide authorities with effective immunity from prosecution.
Crucial for national reconciliation and ending the vicious cycle of violence and impunity in Thailand are credible, independent and impartial inquiries into politically motivated abuses committed by all sides, and sustained measures to hold accountable all those responsible. We are deeply concerned by reports that the government's Center for the Resolution of Emergency Situations (CRES) has not fully cooperated with parliamentary inquiry commissions, the National Human Rights Commission, or the newly appointed Independent Fact-Finding Commission for Reconciliation.  

Thailand made a significant number of human rights pledges in its successful campaign to join to the UN Human Rights Council, but few have been implemented. Particularly disconcerting has been the Thai government's increasing disregard for human rights at it borders, where it has forcibly returned ("refoulement") refugees and asylum seekers to countries where they were likely to face persecution.

During your visit to Thailand, we urge you to:

  • Seek explanations from Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva regarding the renewal of the Emergency Decree and abuses related to the emergency powers, including arbitrary detention and the crackdown on opposition print, broadcast, and online media.
  • Urge the government to welcome all UN special rapporteurs who wish to visit Thailand.   
  • Press Prime Minister Abhisit to make concrete progress on the inquiries into political violence committed by all sides and on his commitment to accountability.
  • Urge the government not to use the November 7 election in Burma as an excuse to forcibly return refugees and asylum seekers; raise broader concerns about Thailand's refugee protection policies and practices, including the expulsion of Rohingya boatpeople and the refoulement of Lao Hmong.


Cambodia's respect for fundamental human rights and the process of democratization continues its precipitous decline. As noted by the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, the judiciary's lack of independence reinforces Cambodia's deeply entrenched impunity and fuels the government's repression of basic rights, particularly rights to freedom of expression and association, land, and adequate housing. Politically motivated court judgments, such as the 10-year sentence handed down in absentia to opposition leader Sam Rainsy on September 23 for peaceful expression, cripple the political opposition's ability to participate in upcoming elections. Community activists protesting forced evictions and "land grabbing" face arrest and prosecution.

Arbitrary detention continues unabated, with the government refusing to close its abusive social protection centers, which often serve as little more than warehouses for police to deposit sex workers, alleged drug users, homeless children, families, and mentally ill people. Currently, more than 2,000 people are arbitrarily detained in government drug detention centers, where they are subjected to torture (including electric shocks and whippings with electrical wire) and forced labor. 

The UN-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) will fail to leave a positive legacy unless it itself abides by international criminal justice standards. Since its inception, the ECCC has been plagued by political interference from the highest levels of government. While the completion of the first trial-of Kaing Kek Ieuv, known as Duch-is to be welcomed, upcoming trials will be much more challenging and complex and require greater cooperation from the Cambodian government regarding evidence and witnesses. The UN should use its considerable leverage in its agreement with the government establishing the ECCC, which provides that the UN can withdraw from the process if it fails to meet international fair trial standards.

In your discussions with the Cambodian government, we urge you to:

  • Publicly call for an end to political interference in the ECCC so that it meets international fair trial standards, as set out in the agreement between the UN and the government.
  • Urge greater government cooperation with the ECCC in future cases, including with the five additional suspects submitted and with the appearance of current government officials as witnesses.
  • Clearly communicate to the government that the system of compulsory drug treatment violates international human rights law and is not supported by either scientific evidence or international standards for effective drug dependence treatment.
  • Press the government to end the arbitrary arrest and detention of alleged drug users, sex workers, homeless people, beggars, street children and mentally ill people, and permanently close government centers where people are detained and abused; ensure with your country team that your visit is not misused by the government to detain these and other vulnerable urban populations.


The Vietnamese government has intensified its suppression of freedom of expression in advance of the upcoming party congress, harassing and arresting peaceful online writers, democracy activists and human rights defenders and shutting down dissident blogs and websites. Hundreds of people have been sentenced to prison under national security laws such as "abusing democratic freedoms" or "spreading anti-government propaganda" simply for peaceful expression of their political or religious beliefs. Political and religious prisoners are routinely subject to torture during interrogation, held incommunicado prior to trial, and denied access to lawyers.

In addition, between 35,000 to 45,000 people are detained in detention centers purportedly for "treatment" of drug dependence. Individuals are sentenced for up to four years without access to a lawyer, appearing before a court, or having an opportunity to appeal the decision. In detention they engage in forced labor. In addition to the serious human rights violations, independent reviews of Vietnam's system of compulsory drug treatment have found a drug-use rate of around 90 percent.

In your talks with Vietnamese officials, we urge you to:

  • Press Vietnam to repeal its increasingly harsh restrictions on the internet, blogs, independent think-tanks, and firewalls against human rights and democracy websites, and end all state sponsored or supported hacking of such websites.
  • Push for repeal of provisions of Vietnam's Criminal Code and other legislation, particularly of vague provisions on national security, which restrict or criminalize the right to peaceful dissent.
  • Clearly communicate to the government that the system of compulsory drug treatment violates international human rights law and is not supported by either scientific evidence or international standards for effective drug dependence treatment.


We were deeply disappointed by your public remarks regarding the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. You failed to call for his release or to note that his wife, Liu Xia, was put under house arrest immediately after the prize was announced. Moreover, you never addressed the core reason for Liu's politicized detention.

Your visit to China comes at a time when key human rights protections-and their domestic defenders-are under assault. The Chinese government has shuttered civil society organizations, systematically disbarred human rights lawyers, and failed to respond positively to requests for invitations from a number of UN special rapporteurs such as those on the right of freedom of expression and of minorities.

In addition, the Chinese government has voiced its clear opposition to the commission of inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma, as recommended by Tomas Quintana, the United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar. Such a commission would address the numerous and systemic abuses in Burma that persist despite decades of UN reporting and resolutions.

The nationwide elections in Burma on November 7, which will merely put a civilian façade on continued military rule, will do nothing to improve Burma's international image. The elections should not be used to deflect calls for a commission of inquiry.  Instead, your clear public support for such a commission would maintain the UN's leadership role on human rights issues and deter efforts by governments such as China to take Burma off the UN agenda.

In your discussions with Chinese leaders, we urge you to reiterate that without significant progress towards accountability for gross, systemic human rights abuses, Burma will remain a target for international opprobrium, as will the governments that uncritically support the military junta. Demonstrating and garnering support for a commission of inquiry, particularly from within Asia, would be viewed as an important step for improving international justice globally.

During your visit to China, we urge you to:

  • Publicly express concern about the illegal detentions of Liu Xia and Liu Xiaobo.
  • Urge the government to roll back its constraints on human rights defenders, including civil society groups and lawyers.
  • Ask that the High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN special rapporteurs be invited to visit China in 2011.
  • Call on the government to end its opposition to a UN commission of inquiry into Burma.

We look forward to working with you and your staff on these issues as you undertake this important trip.


Sophie Richardson
Asia Advocacy Director

Philippe Bolopion
UN Advocacy Director

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