Human Rights Developments
At the same time that human rights became so central to political and economic developments in the region, however, the formulation of policies to promote and protect those rights became increasingly complicated. On China, no government succeeded in integrating human rights concerns with other policy interests, and the formula for doing so eluded nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as well. The release of Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi on July 10 provided one of the few bright spots in the human rights picture during the year, but it raised new questions about appropriate policy responses from governments, NGOs, and international aid agencies.
In the midst of the policy confusion, however, several trends became apparent. Domestic demands for increased freedom of expression intensified across the region. Local NGOs, foreign businesses, and the international human rights community found common ground in recognizing the importance of an impartial legal system and strengthening the rule of law; Vietnam was increasingly becoming a test case of how law, human rights protection and foreign investment interacted. The vulnerability to abuse of specific groups, such as women, indigenous peoples, minorities and migrant workers was very much at issue, with growing concern that their vulnerability in many cases increased with economic growth. The exclusion of an Asian NGO voice in regional trade and security fora began to be an issue, and for the first time, a parallel NGO conference took place in Japan in November at the time of the APEC summit. While the U.N. and donor governments continued to be major targets of advocacy efforts, both local and international NGOs increasingly turned their attention to the private sector and to multilateral lending institutions, such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.
Human Rights Developments
The gravest human rights abuses in Asia continued to take place in areas of armed internal conflict, where both sides were often responsible for summary executions. The resumption of fighting in Sri Lanka in April led to massacres of villagers by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and to the "disappearance" and execution of young Tamil males by the Sri Lankan Special Task Force. International outrage over the beheading of a Norwegian tourist by militants in Kashmir tended to obscure the ongoing human rights violations by the Indian armed forces in the Kashmir Valley, and Burmese military operations along the Thai-Burma border led to refugee outflows, an increase in the internally displaced, and a wide range of army abuses against villagers.
For all the criticism by some Asian governments of the tendency of the West to focus too much on individual civil rights at the expense of communal obligations, it was one of those civil rights_freedom of expression_that became perhaps the paramount political demand of Asians in 1995. In China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Pakistan, India and Indonesia, the freedom to express opinions critical of government leaders and policies became a major issue. On the one hand, the prevalence of the issue supported those who argued that economic growth in Asia would lead to demands for greater civil liberties, as middle-class professionals, for the most part, were the most vocal in seeking greater freedom. On the other hand, the governments in question showed no disposition to make concessions.
In Cambodia, the government's systematic campaign against former finance minister, independent parliamentarian and corruption fighter Sam Rainsy, together with the passage of a new press law, symbolized the steady narrowing of the political space opened up by the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia during its eighteen-month peace-keeping operation. Journalists and editors were charged with criminal defamation for articles, and in one case a cartoon, critical of the government.
In China, delegates to the Fourth World Conference on Women got some inkling of the restrictions faced by ordinary Chinese when they found themselves under surveillance, their meetings restricted or canceled, their papers confiscated and their press coverage censored. Wei Jingsheng, the country's most outspoken advocate of political change and respect for human rights who was re-arrested in April 1994 after only six months of freedom, was formally charged on November 21, 1995, with "conducting activities in [an] attempt to overthrow the Chinese government." As of this writing, Wei continued to be held at an undisclosed location. Other critics remained in prison or faced other forms of persecution. Chinese media were ordered to put a favorable spin on sensitive issues and to rely exclusively on Xinhua, the government news agency, when breaking a story.
In Indonesia, members of the urban middle class protested a range of violations of free expression, from the arrest and conviction of three members of an independent journalists' association, to the police investigation and harassment of a parliamentarian who criticized President Soeharto while on a speaking tour of Germany. These actions, and the government's ban on public appearances of popular opposition figures such as Muslim leader Abdurrachman Wahid, seemed designed more to punish and humiliate outspoken individuals than to restrict the flow of information.
In South Asia, the governments appeared more determined to prevent anti-government views from reaching the public. As civil strife between government forces and the Mohajir Qaumi Movement or MQM intensified in the Pakistani city of Karachi, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto banned six newspapers and canceled the publishing licenses of 122 other publications under a law that had not been used since the 1960s; public pressure forced her to lift the ban after six days. The Indian government likewise curbed independent access to information about developments in the troubled states of Jammu and Kashmir in an effort to portray all outbreaks of violence there as caused directly by Pakistani machinations.
In Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Journalists' Association noted with alarm the increasing tendency of editors to apply self-censorship on issues related to China as 1997, the year of the colony's return to Chinese rule, approached. The firing of a popular political cartoonist seemed a disturbing harbinger of things to come in a place known as having one of the freest presses in all of Asia.
Controls on freedom of expression throughout the region ran counter to calls from the international community for increased "transparency" as a sign of good governance. Another hallmark of good governance on which Asian governments had a very mixed record was respect for the rule of law. Impartial legal systems, free of corruption and with full independence of the judiciary are as important to businesses as they are to the human rights community, but they have been hard to find in Asia. Developments on this front in 1995 were mixed. In Malaysia, the effect of Prime Minister Mahathir's destruction of judicial independence became clear when a national scandal erupted over a company's purchase of a judge to rule in its favor in a takeover bid. In Hong Kong, pro-democracy activists were outraged at Britain's capitulation to Chinese pressure over the creation of a Court of Final Appeal that is to take the place of the Privy Council after 1997; they believed that implementing legislation approved by the two countries would compromise judicial independence and subject the court to political pressure from China. On the other side of the balance sheet, however, Indonesian courts, generally regarded as among the most corrupt and politicized in the region, made three courageous decisions during the year that went counter to government wishes. One was a ruling that a press law used to ban a popular magazine was unconstitutional; one declared the sacking of a dissident professor to be illegal; and one overturned the conviction of eight people convicted through the use of coerced confessions in a celebrated murder trial.
Several countries in the region repealed or drastically reduced the use of broadly-worded internal security laws that had been the target of international and domestic criticism. In most cases, however, other laws, equally broadly worded, were substituted for the offending legislation and used to arrest government critics. Thus, the Chinese government appeared to use the 1993 state security laws to arrest dissidents in place of the heavily criticized laws on "counterrevolution." Those in Indonesia who five years ago would have been charged under the 1963 Anti-Subversion law were charged instead with "spreading hatred of the government" under Article 154 of the Criminal Code. In one much more positive development, India allowed the notorious Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (TADA) act to lapse, largely in response to domestic pressure. However more than 6,000 people detained under TADA remained in custody during the year. Vietnam undertook a major overhaul of its criminal code; the results were not yet apparent by the end of the year.
Worker rights issues were a major concern throughout the region, with bonded labor a particular concern in South Asia, abuses of migrant labor a growing concern of NGOs in East and Southeast Asia, and freedom of association and the right to strike an ongoing issue in South Korea, Indonesia and China, among other countries. The South Korean government, seeking entry into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the club of industrial democracies, boycotted an OECD seminar on worker rights in Seoul in order to avoid awkward questions about Korea's repressive labor laws and practices. A crackdown on labor activists in May and June led to arrests of key Korean organizers. Throughout the region, concern about violations of worker rights was such that a major NGO meeting to address this issue was planned to take place in Japan just prior to the APEC summit in November.
Ratification of international instruments on human rights proceeded at a snail's pace during the year, and Asia continued to have a poor record on acceptance of international standards. On July 5, 1995, Malaysia ratified the convention on Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, just in time for the Beijing Women's conference. At the same time, the generally useful role played by national commissions of human rights in India and Indonesia suggested that the formation of these bodies elsewhere in the region where a strong NGO community was present might aid in the promotion of human rights and acceptance of international standards.
The Right to Monitor
In India, Burma, China, Tibet, Indonesia and East Timor, people were arrested or continued to languish in prison for passing information on human rights abuses to outsiders, publishing reports on human rights violations or organizing demonstrations in support of human rights. At least one Indian human rights monitor "disappeared" after being arrested during the year, apparently in connection with such reporting.
Human rights NGOs in many Asian countries faced harassment for their monitoring activities. In Malaysia, Irene Fernandez, director of the women's rights organization, Tenaganita, was called to police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur in late September for interrogation in connection with possible criminal defamation charges after her organization published a report on abuses in Malaysian immigration detention centers. The U.S. company Freeport McMoran urged the U.S. embassy to cut off funds to the Indonesian human rights and environmental organization, Walhi, after Walhi reported on links between Freeport security guards and the local military in the commission of human rights abuses. In China, where independent human rights organizations do not exist, individuals who tried to circulate petitions demanding more respect for human rights were harassed or imprisoned, with twenty-two people still detained as of November. In Pakistan, human rights lawyers representing Christian defendants were attacked by extremist religious groups. The government has done little to prevent such attacks or to punish those responsible.
The Role of the International Community
Even individual governments that professed concern about human rights in Asia found it extremely difficult to come up with coherent, consistent or effective policies to reflect that concern, especially when strategic and economic interests were also strong. The desire to strengthen trade and investment ties to Asian countries often pushed human rights to the sidelines, although there were some efforts in the U.S., Australia and elsewhere to define principles for businesses operating in repressive countries. In some cases, conflicting signals on human rights were the result of contradictory domestic pressures on governments: U.S. policy on China was probably the best example of a grab bag of competing concerns, which ended up addressing none effectively. Within Asia, donor governments were strong on some countries and weak on others, again as the result of different pressures: the business lobby in Germany was stronger on China and Indonesia than on Burma, for example, while the Australian government clearly had to take public opinion more into account in addressing East Timor than in formulating policy on India.
In some cases, what appeared to be lack of coherence may have been a conscious policy choice. Japan, for example, the region's largest aid donor, was willing to exert human rights pressure through the United Nations but emphasized economic incentives rather than economic pressure in its bilateral relations.
The dilemmas that governments face in formulating human rights policy were brought into stark relief with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. As welcome as it was unexpected, her release raised several questions. To what extent did world attention on Suu Kyi's detention make it more difficult to keep other human rights concerns on the international agenda after her release? Did her release prove the value of economic and diplomatic pressure from the West, or the success of economic incentives (resumed aid) from Japan, or neither? What was the appropriate mix of punitive measures and incentives in approaching a country like Burma? What were the relative strengths and shortcomings of "constructive engagement" as practiced by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) or distinct from political isolation, as practiced by the U.S. and most of Europe? How effective was the latter when the same governments placed no curbs on investment? Did governmental and commercial undertakings have to be coordinated for a human rights policy to be successful? How should human rights pressure and humanitarian needs be balanced? These questions remained unanswered, as governments and NGOs sought effective ways of continuing pressure for fundamental reforms and compliance with successive U.N. General Assembly resolutions on Burma.
U.N. staff and agencies had a mixed record in the region. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights José Ayala Lasso's critical, if guarded comments during his visit to Kashmir were widely reported in the Indian press, and that in itself was useful. The U.N.'s sponsorship of talks on East Timor in July 1995 were an important first step in bringing key East Timorese factions together, but by the end of the year, it was too early to tell whether they would have any impact on a worsening human rights situation there. The U.N. Special Representative in Cambodia and the office in Phnom Penh of the U.N. Center for Human Rights continued to perform admirably, despite the unhappiness of the Cambodian government with their critical reports. At year's end, it seemed as though Yozo Yokota, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Burma, might recommend an ongoing human rights monitoring presence in Burma.
In Thailand, the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) failed to protect refugees from Burma. Indeed, the office in Bangkok did not even complain publicly when refugees were attacked in the camps or when Thai authorities refused to allow refugees asylum from fighting in the Shan State. Meanwhile, Burmese dissidents seeking asylum in Bangkok were subject to a new UNHCR ruling in June that allowed very few of them to be considered refugees. They were left with the option of returning to Burma, with no guarantees for their safety, or seeking illegal employment in Thailand.
The Work of Human Rights Watch/Asia
We created a new position of NGO liaison to better maintain communication with local NGOs across Asia, understand their priorities and facilitate exchanges of information. The position, filled by a longtime researcher, is still evolving, but in addition to improving overall ties to the NGO community in Asia, it is expected to help researchers formulate more effective strategies for working with local partners on human rights concerns. Individual researchers gave high priority to consultation with local and international NGOs: we responded to a plea from Pakistani NGOs to send an observer to a blasphemy trial in February, we organized roundtable discussions in Europe and the U.S. for organizations active on Burma issues, and we helped arrange visits abroad for Cambodian and Indonesian NGOs. Where possible, advocacy work in Japan, the U.S. and Europe was preceded by consultation with domestic NGOs. That consultation was particularly important on labor rights issues. The Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing provided an important forum for communication and cooperation on women's human rights. A brochure written for delegates to that conference, introducing them to Chinese law and practices that might affect their ability to hold meetings, circulate material or take part in demonstrations, was eagerly received and translated into several languages.
Throughout the year, we sought to examine the role of trade and investment in Asia as it affects human rights issues. At one level, this meant continuing our efforts to identify common interests linking the business and human rights communities, such as increasing the transparency of government procedures, strengthening the rule of law and improving industrial relations and the treatment of workers. Recognition of these interests facilitated dialogue with businesses working on Indonesia, Vietnam and China, in particular. At another level, we did not hesitate to criticize companies whose practices we believed contributed to human rights abuses, and we became a major voice within the human rights community seeking enhanced corporate responsibility for businesses operating in Asia. We urged a freeze on all investment in Burma until the Burmese government was willing to provide verifiable guarantees that the use of forced labor had ceased. We met with representatives of the Swiss pharmaceutical corporation, Sandoz Limited, Basel, Switzerland, the producer of the main drug used in Chinese transplant operations, and stressed their responsibility to press for an end to the use of executed prisoners as organ donors.
Human Rights Watch/Asia called on foreign investors to avoid any involvement with the Three Gorges Dam project until the Chinese government provided verifiable guarantees that the rights of the more than one million people scheduled to be relocated would be protected. In the spring, we met with representatives of a major U.S. company involved in the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. We raised concerns about the use of forced or prison labor in the project.
We strengthened direct communication with Asian governments during the year and were in regular and ongoing dialogue with Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Indonesian officials, as well as with the Hong Kong government. In meetings with representatives of the Indian and Indonesian national human rights commissions, we raised the possibility of discussing our policy recommendations prior to the publication of our reports. The exact nature of our relationship to those commissions was still being discussed at year's end.
During the year, we made a concerted effort to reach out to the broader human rights community, especially those organizations working on development, environment, and migrant worker issues. A report on human rights and forest management in the Philippines, for example, and another on the Three Gorges dam in China, as well as ongoing concerns about logging in Cambodia and mining in Indonesia, helped strengthen ties to environmental activists. One result was a much wider advocacy network.
Widening of advocacy possibilities was also furthered by much more frequent discussions with staff of the World Bank and other multilateral lending institutions such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB.) After the ADB opened an office in Washington, D.C., and adopted a policy on "governance" late in the year, we laid the groundwork for a series of meetings with senior staff there to discuss the possible human rights impact of specific ADB projects.
Reflecting priorities in the region, our long-term research and advocacy agenda included a strong focus on worker rights, including migrant workers. A mission to the Republic of Korea in June focused exclusively on labor rights, a report on Pakistan examined bonded labor, and a petition to the U.S. Trade Representative urging a review of Indonesian labor rights practices was based on new research on abuses against workers in export-oriented manufacturing. For the first time, Human Rights Watch mounted a campaign to raise labor rights concerns in conjunction with deliberations by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as it considered the Republic of Korea's bid to become a member. We also worked through our Brussels office to forge a coalition with international labor groups that filed the first ever petition under the terms of a new European Union Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) scheme linking tariff benefits to human rights; the petition was on bonded child labor in Pakistan.
At year's end, research was underway on abuses against migrant workers across the region: Burmese in Thailand, Thais in Japan, Indonesians in Malaysia and Filipinas in Hong Kong and Taiwan.