Discussion – Human Rights in Asia: Situations of Concern

By Sam Ryan
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In a time of rapid change, human rights continue to be a central concern in Asia.

… the governments of Australia, America and Europe have lost “their moral authority on key issues like torture, unlawful imprisonment and the torment of refugees” …

On 7 December, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, Elaine Pearson, and SBS’s Dateline presenter, Mark Davis, discussed human rights issues in the region – focusing on Sri Lanka, Burma, the Philippines and West Papua – and Australia’s response, at a session entitled “Human Rights in Asia – Situations of Concern”.

Opening the discussion, Davis noted that the governments of Australia, America and Europe have lost “their moral authority on key issues like torture, unlawful imprisonment and the torment of refugees” in recent years, and he now holds greater faith in lawyers as defenders of human rights internationally.

In Sri Lanka, serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law have occurred during a civil war fought over more than two decades, with seemingly little international interest.

The Government insists that no civilians were killed by its forces in the final months of intense combat in 2009, despite evidence to the contrary, and has failed to investigate claims of war crimes by both sides. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has placed family members in key political positions, and counter-terrorism laws provide the Government with greater power to imprison people for extended periods without official charges.

Pearson put the international apathy down to protection from China and Russia, a relative lack of images from the front line and the uncomfortable nature of the Tamil rebellion. Human Rights Watch, however, is seeking an International Commission of Inquiry led by the United Nations.

Recent developments in Burma are promising by comparison, though Pearson is cautious about their progress. While the Government is seeking more meaningful relations with the US and ASEAN, creating opportunities for engagement and dialogue, she calls last year’s elections a “complete sham” that merely entrenched military power in civilian posts.

Progress has included lifting some media censorship, laws allowing peaceful assembly (under certain conditions) and providing unions the right to strike. Yet vague, broad laws – used to detain a large number of people following a 2007 protest led by Buddhist monks – remain in place and create uncertainty. While some political prisoners have been released, about 1600 remain behind bars.

Australia has taken a relatively active role in Burma, maintaining targeted sanctions, and calling for release of all political prisoners and an end to abuses in conflict areas. The Australian Government was also one of the first to call for an International Commission of Inquiry into human rights abuses but has, according to Pearson, since stepped back and adopted “very much a wait and see approach”. She thinks now is an opportune time for ASEAN, which Burma will chair in 2014, and the West to set clear benchmarks for reform and consider removing sanctions, should those conditions be met.

… it is the transgressions in West Papua that Davis calls the “most blatant of abuses in our region”.

Pearson and Davis shared some optimism for the Philippines under the new President, Benigno Aquino, despite slow progress. Extra-judicial killings continue and many of the 196 people named in relation to the horrific 2009 “Maguindanao Massacre”, including members of the police and military, have never been apprehended. Because of its close history with the US, Pearson sees America, in particular, as having a significant role to play in the Philippines.

However, it is the transgressions in West Papua that Davis calls the “most blatant of abuses in our region”. It is a situation barely reported, despite a high level of military abuses, killings, torture and arbitrary detention. The Indonesian Government has attempted to restrict access to foreign journalists and agencies, though video footage and other documentation continues to emerge. Last month three people were killed and more than 300 arrested when the members of the Papuan People’s Congress read out a Declaration of Independence.

According to Pearson, Australia has been slow to react to human rights abuses in Papua, even appearing to condone the actions against People’s Congress, although where concerns have been raised the outcome has generally been successful.

With the rise of China, Pearson sees the US and Australia already losing influence in Asia. For example, countries such as Cambodia are shunning conditional aid from the US in favour of aid from China. Although President Obama’s recent visit is indicative of America’s recognition of the need for stronger ties in Asia.

The work of human rights lawyers and journalists in Asia is as important as ever.

In her view, Australia’s inaction is largely due to reluctance to be seen as a bully in the region; the Government is willing to speak out in extreme cases necessary, but hesitant in areas like West Papua.

The work of human rights lawyers and journalists in Asia is as important as ever. While mobile cameras are helping to expose human rights across the globe, Davis believes they have a limited role and footage is too often untrustworthy. Good, investigative journalism, however, is essential for reliable reporting of human rights abuses and, with Western governments seemingly reluctant to act, lawyers are playing an increasingly vital role in holding recalcitrant regimes to account.

Human Rights in Asia – Situations of Concern was co-hosted by the Human Rights Law Centre and Human Rights Watch.

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