STRICTLY EMBARGOED UNTIL WEDNESDAY 22 FEBRUARY 2017 (00.01 GMT)
‘Politics of demonization’ breeding division and fear
• Amnesty International releases its Annual Report for 2016 to 2017
• Shrinking civic space across Southeast Asia and the Pacific
Divisive politicians who promote a toxic and dehumanizing “us vs them” narrative are creating a more dangerous world, warned Amnesty International today as it launched its annual assessment of human rights around the world.
The report, The State of the World’s Human Rights, delivers the most comprehensive analysis of the state of human rights around the world, covering 159 countries. In Southeast Asia and the Pacific, the report highlights how civic space has been shrinking as the authorities invoke a slew of repressive laws to criminalize peaceful expression.
“2016 was the year when the cynical use of ‘us vs them’ narratives of blame, hate and fear took on a global prominence to a level not seen since the 1930s,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary-General of Amnesty International.
“In Southeast Asia and the Pacific, we have seen governments target human rights activists and civil society, choking dissent,” said Champa Patel, Amnesty International’s Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
“Across Malaysia, Thailand, Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos, people have been relentlessly threatened, arrested and prosecuted for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly.
“In Myanmar, where the year began with the historic release of prisoners of conscience and reform of draconian laws, we have seen a similarly disappointing trend of human rights activists being harassed while some repressive laws still linger and new ones restricting freedom of expression are being proposed. And in the Philippines, human rights activists were threatened with death by the President himself.”
Politics of demonization drives global pushback on human rights.
Seismic political shifts in 2016 exposed the potential of hateful rhetoric to unleash the dark side of human nature. The global trend of angrier and more divisive politics was exemplified by Donald Trump’s poisonous campaign rhetoric, but political leaders in various parts of the world also wagered their future power on narratives of fear, blame and division.
In 2016, governments also turned on refugees and migrants; often an easy target for scapegoating. The Annual Report documents how 36 countries violated international law by unlawfully sending refugees back to a country where their rights were at risk.
In Myanmar, tens of thousands from the systematically discriminated against Rohingya community were yet again forced to flee their homes after enduring human rights violations that may amount to crimes against humanity.
Indonesian authorities, whom had earned praise in 2015 for letting Rohingya refugees and asylum-seekers into the country, tried to prevent a boat of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees and asylum seekers from coming ashore. Security forces in Aceh even fired warning shots in the air, terrifying the group of more than 44 people that included a heavily pregnant woman.
Malaysian authorities released a group of Rohingya refugees and asylum-seekers from detention, where they had been kept in appalling conditions, but there has been no accountability for the mass graves that were discovered off its coast in 2015.
On the Pacific islands of Nauru and Manus Island, the Australian government continued to operate open-air prisons that are designed to inflict suffering to try and stop some of the world’s most vulnerable people from finding safety.
“On refugees, the Australian government continues to lead the world in a dangerous plunge to the bottom. Under international law, the deliberate infliction of such mental anguish to maximise deterrence amounts to torture,” said Champa Patel.
World turns its back on mass atrocities
Amnesty International is warning that 2017 will see ongoing crises exacerbated by a debilitating absence of human rights leadership on a chaotic world stage. The politics of “us vs them” is also taking shape at the international level, replacing multilateralism with a more aggressive, confrontational world order.
The world faces a long list of crises with little political will to address them: including Myanmar, Philippines, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, Central America, Central African Republic, Burundi, Iraq, South Sudan and Sudan. Amnesty International’s Annual Report documented war crimes committed in at least 23 countries in 2016.
Despite these challenges, international indifference to war crimes has become an entrenched normality as the UN Security Council remains paralyzed by rivalries between permanent member states.
Human rights violations in two of the region’s states involved attacks against civilian populations that may amount to crimes against humanity.
In Myanmar, tens of thousands of people from the Rohingya minority were forced to flee their homes after security forces choked humanitarian access as they torched hundreds of homes, deployed unnecessary or excessive force and subjected people to torture and other ill-treatment including rape and other sexual violence against women.
In the Philippines, acting on instructions and incitement from the very top of government, the police have killed and paid others to kill thousands of alleged drug offenders in a wave of extrajudicial executions that may amount to crimes against humanity.
“The beginning of 2017 finds many of the world’s most powerful states pursuing narrower national interests at the expense of international cooperation. This risks taking us towards a more chaotic, dangerous world,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.
“A new world order where human rights are portrayed as a barrier to national interests makes the ability to tackle mass atrocities dangerously low, leaving the door open to abuses reminiscent of the darkest times of human history.
“The international community has already responded with deafening silence after countless atrocities in 2016: a live stream of horror from Aleppo, possible crimes against humanity in Myanmar and the Philippines, use of chemical weapons and hundreds of villages burned in Darfur. The big question in 2017 will be how far the world lets atrocities go before doing something about them.”
Who is going to stand up for human rights?
Amnesty International’s report warns that global solidarity and public mobilization will be particularly important to defend individuals who stand up to those in power and defend human rights, who are often cast by governments as a threat to economic development, security or other priorities.
“We cannot passively rely on governments to stand up for human rights, we the people have to take action. With politicians increasingly willing to demonize entire groups of people, the need for all of us to stand up for the basic values of human dignity and equality everywhere has seldom been clearer,” said Salil Shetty.
Amnesty International has documented grave violations of human rights in 2016 in 159 countries. Examples of countries covered in Southeast Asia and the Pacific include:
Cambodia: Crackdown on the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly intensified ahead of elections in
2017/2018. The authorities’ misuse of the justice system increased; the security forces continued to harass and punish civil society and silence critics. Human rights defenders were arrested and held in pre-trial detention. Political opposition was targeted, with activists serving long sentences handed down in previous years and new legal action taken against opposition party leaders and others. A prominent political commentator was shot dead and impunity continued for past unlawful killings
Fiji: In March, Fiji ratified the UN Convention against Torture although reservations were made, including on the definition of torture. Accountability for torture and other ill-treatment was hindered by immunities enshrined in the Constitution and a lack of political will to effectively prosecute cases. Arbitrary restrictions on the right to freedom of expression remained.
Malaysia: The crackdown on the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association persisted. Police were not held accountable for human rights violations.
Myanmar: The formation of a new civilian-led government did not lead to significant improvements in the human rights situation. The persecuted Rohingya minority faced increased violence and discrimination. Religious intolerance and anti-Muslim sentiment intensified. Fighting between the army and ethnic armed groups escalated in northern Myanmar.
Nauru: There were around 1,200 refugees and asylum-seekers remaining in Nauru. As of 30 November, there were 383 in the Australian-run Regional Processing Centre, including 44 children, 49 women and 290 men.
Papua New Guinea: As of 30 November, around 900 refugees and asylum-seekers, all men, remained in two Australian-run detention centres on Manus Island. In April, the Supreme Court held that their detention – for more than three years – was illegal and unconstitutional. It ordered the Australian and Papua New Guinean governments to close the camps immediately. Both camps remained open. There were also high levels of violence by state and non-state actors against sex workers on grounds of their gender identity, sexual orientation, or status as sex workers.
Philippines: The government launched a campaign to crackdown on drugs in which over 6,000 people were killed. Human rights defenders and journalists were also targeted and killed by unidentified gunmen and armed militia. The use of unnecessary and excessive force by police continued.
Singapore: The authorities continued to harass and prosecute bloggers and dissidents. Media remained heavily regulated through the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act. Judicial caning and the death penalty continued to be applied.
Thailand: The military authorities further restricted human rights. Peaceful political dissent, whether through speech or protests, were punished or banned. Politicians and human rights activists faced criminal investigations and prosecutions. Many civilians were tried in military courts. Torture and other ill-treatment remained widespread.
Viet Nam: Severe restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, of association and of peaceful assembly continued. The media and the judiciary, as well as political and religious institutions, remained under state control. Prisoners of conscience were tortured and otherwise ill-treated, and subjected to unfair trials. Physical attacks against human rights defenders continued, and prominent activists were subjected to daily surveillance and harassment. Peaceful dissidents and government critics were arrested and convicted on national security charges. Demonstrations were repressed, with participants and organizers arrested and tortured. The death penalty was retained.
Indonesia: Broad and vaguely worded laws were used to arbitrarily restrict the rights to freedom of expression, of peaceful assembly and of association. Despite the authorities’ commitments to resolve past cases of human rights violations, millions of victims and their families were still denied truth, justice and reparation. There were reports of human rights violations by security forces, including unlawful killings and the use of excessive or unnecessary force. At least 38 prisoners of conscience remained in detention. Four people were executed.
China: Ongoing crackdown against lawyers and activists continued, including incommunicado detention, televised confessions and harassments of family members.
Russia: At home the government noose tightened around national NGOs, with increasing propaganda labelling critics as “undesirable” or “foreign agents”, and the first prosecution of NGOs under a “foreign agents” law. Meanwhile, dozens of independent NGOs receiving foreign funding were added to the list of “foreign agents”. Abroad there was a complete disregard for international humanitarian law in Syria.
Syria: Impunity for war crimes and gross human rights abuses continued, including indiscriminate attacks and direct attacks on civilians and lengthy sieges that trapped civilians. The human rights community has been almost completely crushed, with activists either imprisoned, tortured, disappeared, or forced to flee the country.
USA: An election campaign marked by discriminatory, misogynist and xenophobic rhetoric raised serious concerns about the strength of future US commitments to human rights domestically and globally.
Download the full report here.