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(Top left) Afghan refugees return to Afghanistan from Pakistan, in Torkham, Afghanistan, November 3, 2023. (Top Right) Homes destroyed after airstrikes and shelling in Mung Lai Hkyet displacement camp in Laiza, Myanmar, October 10, 2023. (Bottom left) A relative of political violence victims during a protest in Dhaka, Bangladesh, November 28, 2023. (Bottom right) A woman places a candle between pictures of victims of alleged enforced disappearances during a gathering of relatives and supporters in observance of All Souls Day in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, November 2, 2023. © 2023 AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi / 2023 AP Photo/ 2023 Kazi Salahuddin Razu/NurPhoto via AP / 2023 ROLEX DELA PENA/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

(Bangkok) – Increasing repression by governments in Asia is negatively affecting human rights locally and internationally, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing its World Report 2024.

In 2023, the Chinese government continued to commit crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, and increased abusive policies and practices across the country. North Korea and Vietnam escalated repression at home. India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Bangladesh, all of which have elections scheduled in 2024, heightened attacks on democratic institutions and the rule of law.

“The threats abusive governments in Asia pose to human rights domestically and internationally demand bold new approaches from rights-respecting governments and democratic institutions,” said Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “People throughout Asia are seeing their rights and freedoms trampled or ignored. Stronger leadership is needed to protect and promote human rights in the region, or the situation will only grow worse.”

In the 740-page World Report 2024, its 34th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In her introductory essay, Executive Director Tirana Hassan says that 2023 was a consequential year not only for human rights suppression and wartime atrocities but also for selective government outrage and transactional diplomacy that carried profound costs for the rights of those not in on the deal. But she says there were also signs of hope, showing the possibility of a different path, and calls on governments to consistently uphold their human rights obligations.   

Asia, unlike Europe, Africa, and the Americas, lacks a meaningful human rights charter or regional institution to safeguard human rights standards. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a political body, has repeatedly proven incapable of addressing regional human rights crises, most conspicuously with the crisis in Myanmar.

Democratic systems in Asia remained under assault throughout 2023. After Thailand’s May elections, the top-vote getting party was blocked from forming a government by a military-appointed senate and other mechanisms created under a military junta-drafted constitution. An electoral exercise in Cambodia in July could not even be considered an election, as the government blocked the main opposition party from participating. Ahead of 2024 elections in Bangladesh, authorities intensified attacks the political opposition, arresting over 10,000 dissidents and opposition members.

In Vietnam and in India, authorities expanded arbitrary arrests and prosecutions of dissidents and critics of the government, including environmental activists. In the Philippines, union leaders, journalists, and activists remained targets of often deadly anti-communist “red-tagging.” The long-time Cambodian leader, Hun Sen, passed on his position as prime minister to his son Hun Manet, who did not ease the severe restrictions on civic society groups and independent media.

North Korea’s totalitarian government kept its border sealed and almost entirely cut off its population from the rest of the world, worsening the country’s dire human rights situation. In Afghanistan, the Taliban entrenched their severe rights restrictions, particularly on women and girls, in the face of a humanitarian crisis.

Several governments in Asia engaged in repressive conduct outside their borders in 2023. The Chinese government intimidated people and institutions in other countries. Asylum seekers in Thailand faced threats of forced deportation to Myanmar, China, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

In September, the government of Canada reported that agents of the Indian government were involved in the assassination of a separatist Sikh activist in Canada, a claim the Indian government denied. In November, US authorities indicted a man for plotting with an Indian government official to assassinate a Sikh activist in the US.

Democratic governments in Asia did little to champion or support human rights standards regionally or internationally. Japan, on the United Nations Security Council, remained relatively silent on rights and declined to impose or enforce sanctions on abusive Southeast Asian governments. South Korea, which was elected to the Security Council for 2024-2025, likewise, did little to stand up for human rights in other Asian countries. Australia has been much slower than other Western governments to use targeted sanctions on human rights abusers, most notably with abusive Chinese officials sanctioned by other governments.

India’s government has entirely abandoned its past practice of supporting human rights promotion in neighbors, such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. Indonesia’s emergence in recent years as a more rights-respecting country has not resulted in its government championing human rights or democratic rule elsewhere.

“Established democracies in Asia – notably India, Indonesia, Japan, and South Korea – have failed to provide leadership to advance human rights in the region or the world,” Pearson said. “They need to realize that repression outside their borders affects human rights at home.”

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