Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page


Two features of the human rights situation in Asia in 1992 stood out: the extent to which Asian countries were contributing to human rights problems outside their own borders and the extent to which they decided to respond formally to external pressure on human rights.

Most of the human rights problems noted in 1991 remained the same, including the treatment of dissidents in China and the harshness of the Chinese prison and labor camp system; political imprisonment and atrocities against national minorities in Burma; military and paramilitary abuses in Kashmir; and repression by the Indonesian government in East Timor. The fall of President Najibullah in Afghanistan threw that country into a state of chaos and factional fighting that threatened to turn it into an Asian Somalia. The refusal of the Khmer Rouge to cooperate with a United Nations peace agreement and reports of its successful political infiltration of Cambodian villages raised the specter of a return to influence of one of Asia's deadliest organizations. If there was a bright spot, it was Taiwan's continued progress toward a more open society, marked among other things by the repeal of the Sedition Law. South Korea, by contrast, kept its National Security Law on the books, despite a recommendation in July 1992 by the United Nations Human Rights Committee that the vaguely worded law be phased out.

It was striking how many of Asia's human rights problems involved more than one Asian government. Burma's ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (slorc) was armed by China and kept afloat by trade with China and Thailand. When slorc's abuses pushed Muslim refugees across the border to Bangladesh, problems of the treatment of refugees arose on the Bangladeshi side. Efforts to put pressure on the Khmer Rouge depended on Thai willingness to seal off its borders to the gem and logging trade. Thai police routinely abused Burmese refugees, particularly women. Pakistan's supply of arms to Kashmir contributed to the tension there (although abuses by Indian security forces could neither be explained nor justified by such involvement.) Saudi Arabian and Pakistani sources were believed to be supporting Afghan mujahidin leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's efforts to wrest power from other mujahidin factions, despite Hekmatyar's abusive practices. Hong Kong's forced repatriation of Vietnamese refugees and India's repatriation of Tamils to Sri Lanka were both characterized by inadequate screening and monitoring procedures. The Chinese government was attempting to prevent democratization in Hong Kong before the British colony is returned to China in 1997. Worker rights in Indonesia were reported to be particularly abused in plants owned or managed by South Koreans; similar allegations were made about the treatment of workers in factories in China that were financed with Hong Kong or Taiwanese capital. Japan, as the region's largest donor and investor, had enormous financial interests in countries with the worst human rights records in Asia, but it chose not to exert its economic leverage. Abuse against hiv and aids sufferers became an increasing problem, linked to drug production and trafficking in womenacross Burma's borders with Thailand, China and India. Human rights abuses against villagers living in forest areas was another problem as Thai logging companies backed by the military sought new areas of operation in Cambodia, Burma and Laos, as well as in ostensibly protected forest areas of Thailand.

The complicity of Asian governments in human rights abuses beyond their own borders gave a new twist to the other striking development during the year: the interest shown in establishing formal human rights bodies in Asia. There were numerous examples:

· The governments making up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (asean)-Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Brunei-began to discuss setting up a governmental human rights forum for the region.

· Indonesia set up a parliamentary committee on human rights.

· India, supported by the state governments, moved to set up a human rights commission in Delhi which was expected to begin work in early 1993.

· China issued two new White Papers on human rights, one on the criminal justice system and one on Tibet.

· Cambodia, through the Supreme National Council, acceded to six major international human rights agreements and Thailand moved toward accession to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

· Japan reaffirmed its commitment to use respect for human rights as one criterion in allocating Official Development Assistance, its overseas aid program.

These moves, while positive, would have been more welcome had they been coupled with evidence of a desire to prevent human rights abuses at home or within the region. With the exception of Thailand, where government efforts to address human rights concerns were overwhelmingly the result of domestic pressure following the May violence to place curbs on the army, and Cambodia, where the United Nations Transitional Administration in Cambodia (untac) was setting the human rights agenda, government moves appeared to be more an effort to fend off international criticism than a genuine attempt to ameliorate human rights abuses. They were at once a reaction to efforts by Western donors to condition aid on democratization and respect for human rights; a determination to define an "Asian" concept of human rights; and a way of responding to outside criticism of specific practices and policies. But there were clear differences of approach in South Asia, Southeast Asia and China.

In South Asia, Sri Lanka and India responded to international pressure by taking steps in 1991 to set up their own human rights commissions and task forces which would at once address the concerns most often raised by donor countries and keep human rights investigations a domestic affair. "Once we havethe human rights commission," an Indian official said, "there will be no need for Asia Watch or Amnesty International." Local nongovernmental organizations (ngos) were torn. In Sri Lanka, many activists felt that the new agencies forced the government to pay more attention to human rights, even if they were slow, unwieldy and too limited in scope. In India, human rights organizations expressed concern that a human rights commission would be a way for the government to focus less on its own conduct than on abuses by militants in Kashmir, Punjab and elsewhere. However, even the skeptics acknowledged that a commission would give legitimacy to discussions on human rights.

In Southeast Asia, there was much more of an effort to band together to face what was perceived as an onslaught of Western criticism on human rights-and one likely to get worse with a Clinton administration in Washington. The moves were led by Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, with tacit support from Vietnam and, to some extent, China. At the Non-Aligned Movement's summit meeting in Jakarta in September, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed of Malaysia called the conditioning of aid on respect for human rights a form of cultural imperialism, imposing Western political values on non-Western countries. At a meeting between asean and European Community foreign ministers in Manila in October, Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas reiterated a theme he has stated many times before: developing nations must secure the economic rights of their people before turning to individual rights which are purportedly a luxury of developed countries.

To further the notion that developing countries, and particularly Asian countries, need to foster a concept of human rights that is more in tune with their culture and level of economic development, asean governments in 1992 began to discuss the idea of forming their own regional human rights commission. Spokespersons for Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore acknowledged the universality of human rights principles but argued that it should be up to governments to determine how these principles should be implemented.

China reacted to human rights pressure by accepting the principle of respect for human rights but denying its own violations. Just as its October 1991 White Paper on Human Rights stressed the social and economic benefits that Chinese people enjoyed, two new White Papers issued in 1992 described the enlightened treatment of China's prisoners and the human rights enjoyed by the people of Tibet.

The underlying message of Asian governments was that while discussion of human rights issues was legitimate, control over the interpretation and implementation of international human rights standards should rest with the government in question. At the end of 1992, there were efforts to develop a common governmental position across South and Southeast Asia that could be presented at the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights scheduled to be held in Vienna in June 1993.

Asian ngos and individual human rights activists from Asian countries also tended to believe that human rights priorities had been skewed by the West but they sought to block moves to weakenthe universality of international standards. Moreover, in a statement signed by 60 Asian ngos in preparation for the World Conference, they noted, "While the denial and deprivation of economic and social rights is a matter of grave concern, Asian ngos are equally distressed by the gross violations of the civil and political rights of people in the region."

The stands taken by South Asia, Southeast Asia, and China all acknowledged the legitimacy of human rights as a topic of international discussion. The question was whether that acknowledgement would lead to action by governments, either to address violations of human rights and humanitarian law in their own countries or to join forces with other countries in the region to put pressure on offending neighbors. Paradoxically, the more Asian governments become involved in human rights violations elsewhere in Asia, the more they become a necessary part of the solution. Even if the European Community, the U.S., Australia and Japan agreed to put pressure on the Khmer Rouge, their actions would be ineffective without Thai cooperation. A full trade embargo against Burma is likely to have little effect unless China takes part. To put real pressure on China to improve its human rights performance, Japan must weigh in. Establishing the legitimacy of the topic was a first step, but it is not enough.

The Right to Monitor

Human rights monitors had a difficult year in Asia, and they fared no better in democratic countries than in authoritarian ones. Governments throughout the region used a variety of techniques of intimidation, ranging from murder to cutting off an organization's source of funding. No known domestic human rights organizations exist in Brunei, Burma, East Timor, North Korea, Singapore or Vietnam. In China, underground organizations were active but were not allowed to function openly. Human rights monitors tended to face the most danger in areas marked by internal conflict or ongoing civil strife within countries that generally allowed a high degree of freedom of expression and association. Human rights activists were arrested or continued to be detained in 1992 for documenting or publicizing violations of internationally recognized rights in Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Tibet.

Many governments in the region appeared to be indirectly targeting human rights organizations by imposing general controls on nongovernmental organizations: making registration procedures more onerous or restricting the amount of foreign funding allowed. In fact, as Asian governments increasingly decried conditioning aid on respect for human rights, those governments tended to see domestic human rights organizations that received foreign funds as agents of foreign interests.

U.S. Policy

The Bush administration did not place a high priority on human rights problems in the region, and Asian governments were awaiting the transition to a Clinton administration with some anxiety. If the Bush administration had by and large encouraged trade and investment at the expense of human rights-by sayingthat what is good for American business is good for human rights-Asian governments feared that Clinton would be more willing to use trade sanctions in support of human rights.

In country after country, whether China, Indonesia, India or Sri Lanka, the Bush administration put business first and assumed that as long as economic reforms in favor of foreign investment were underway, political change was inevitable, and concerted pressure on human rights was neither desirable nor necessary. The administration vetoed conditions on Most Favored Nation trade status for China; it tried to avert a cutoff of military aid to Indonesia after the East Timor massacre; and it actively opposed a bill in Congress that would have required U.S. businesses investing in China to observe a Code of Conduct that would promote human rights. Among the region's worst offenders, only Burma came in for sustained criticism-and U.S. economic and strategic interests there were minimal.

In general, the administration's reluctance to press very hard on human rights issues on a bilateral basis was also evident in its performance in multilateral settings. It contributed to the defeat of a resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva that would have condemned China for human rights abuses in Tibet. It continued to oppose some loans to China in the World Bank, but whereas after the 1989 crackdown it had lobbied other governments to do the same, by 1992 it was making no effort to prevent World Bank lending to China from reaching record-high levels. The administration's record was better in the annual meetings of donors to particular countries. In March, prior to the meeting in Paris of donors to Sri Lanka, the U.S. urged Japan to join in pressing the Sri Lankan government on human rights, and in July, at the meeting of the donor consortium on Indonesia, the U.S. made a public statement noting human rights abuses in East Timor.

The administration reacted swiftly and appropriately to the killings in Bangkok in May by suspending joint military exercises with the Thai military, but it was too quick to resume cooperation after the September 13 election restored a civilian government to power. Major questions about the Thai military's role in the killings and in subsequent disposal of bodies remained unanswered, and continued suspension of military cooperation would have been a powerful source of pressure.

U.S. policy toward refugee-related human rights problems in Asia was mixed. The administration properly opposed forced repatriation of Vietnamese refugees from Hong Kong, although its opposition was derided in the region because of its own summary repatriation of Haitian refugees. It gave assistance to Burmese refugees in Bangladesh and exerted pressure on the Bangladeshi government to ensure that any repatriation to Burma was safe and voluntary. On the other hand, its policy toward Burmese refugees in Thailand was decidedly ambiguous, as the administration appeared to support less-than-adequate screening and monitoring in the proposed "safe area" for Burmese students in Thailand.

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page