World leaders must act urgently to confront the changing nature of conflict and protect civilians from horrific violence by states and armed groups, urged Amnesty International as it launched its annual assessment of human rights around the world. The group said that there is a tightening muzzle on free speech across the Asia Pacific region as governments locked up dissenting voices on the pretext of national security.
The international human rights organization called the global response to atrocities by states and armed groups ‘shameful and ineffective’. The report highlights horrific violence by states and armed groups and global failure to protect civilians and says that governments must ‘’stop pretending the protection of civilians is beyond their power.’’
Without action, Amnesty forecasts growing restrictions on free speech, rising religious intolerance and a worsening refugee crisis in Asia-Pacific. ‘’Speaking out is becoming a crime in too many countries, leaving media and civil society less space to operate,” said Richard Bennett, Asia Pacific Director at Amnesty International.
“Over the past year, we saw governments use draconian security laws to suppress civil society, locking up and punishing critical voices on the pretext of ‘national security’. States are growing increasingly fearful of the power of new technology and are suppressing the use of online tools,” Bennett added.
Governments from Pakistan to Vietnam were in 2014 stifling open debate, often locking up and targeting dissenting voices under the guise of national security. “There’s a tightening muzzle on free speech across the Asia Pacific region. In a positive sign, we saw growing youth activism across Asia in 2014, as people embraced new technologies to claim their rights. However, many governments reacted to this trend with further oppression online,” said Rupert Abbott, South East Asia Research Director.
In Southeast Asia, the trend is downward. In Vietnam, authorities showed little tolerance for dissent, no matter how innocuous, said Rupert Abbott. In 2014, at least 18 bloggers and activists were tried and sentenced under Article 258 for ‘abusing democratic freedoms’. And at least another five more bloggers were arrested and charged under the same provision for posting or writing articles critical of the government, officials and policies. ‘’This harsh and growing crackdown on freedom of expression must end,” Rupert Abbott said.
The Lao government has also kept a tight grip on freedom of expression. Abbott said that the continuing failure to adequately investigate the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone, a prominent member of civil society, had a chilling effect on freedom of expression and civil society generally.
“Last year saw a real backslide on human rights in Myanmar. Arrests of peaceful protesters picked up pace, as the government used draconian laws to silence critics and peaceful protesters,’’ Abbott said. At least 10 media workers were imprisoned at the end of the year, adding to the growing numbers of new prisoners of conscience in the country’s jails. In July, five staff members of the Unity newspaper were sentenced to 10 years in prison after publishing an article about an alleged secret chemical weapons factory. ‘’Although their sentences have been reduced to seven years on appeal, the verdict was a stark example of the restrictions still facing media workers in the country,” he added.
Amnesty warned that space will continue to shrink for civil society and media, with legislation – including national security laws in, for example, South Korea, Thailand and Myanmar– used to silence those critical of the authorities. Governments across the region – in, for example, China, North Korea, Vietnam and Laos – will most likely continue to try to control public.
Buddhist extremist groups in Myanmar and Sri Lanka used hate speech or violence against other groups; repressive blasphemy laws in Pakistan and Indonesia were used to target mainly minority groups; while India has seen an alarming escalation of rhetoric from a range of actors against Muslim and Christian minorities.
Tens of thousands of persecuted Rohingya fled Myanmar and many were held in appalling conditions by traffickers. China, and other countries, continue to forcibly return people to North Korea, where they are often subject to arbitrary imprisonment, forced labour, torture or other ill-treatment, and may be subject to execution. Australia toughened up its harsh policies towards refugees, turning back boats and continuing to ship asylum seekers to offshore processing centers. Asian migrant workers continue to face deplorable conditions, both inside and outside of the region.
“2014 was a catastrophic year for millions caught up in violence. The global response to conflict and abuses by states and armed groups has been shameful and ineffective. As people suffered an escalation in barbarous attacks and repression, the international community has been found wanting,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.
“The United Nations was established 70 years ago to ensure that we would never again see the horrors witnessed in the Second World War. We are now seeing violence on a mass scale and an enormous refugee crisis caused by that violence. There has been a singular failure to find workable solutions to the most pressing needs of our time.”
Amnesty International is urging governments to ensure their response to security threats do not undermine fundamental human rights or fuel further violence. “The global outlook on the state of human rights is bleak, but there are solutions. World leaders must take immediate and decisive action to avert an impending global crisis and take us one step closer to a safer world in which rights and freedoms are protected,” said Salil Shetty.
Amnesty International’s Annual Report provides a comprehensive overview of human rights in 160 countries during 2014, including 29 countries in Asia Pacific where there has been a harsh crackdown on freedom of expression across the region. You can view it in full here and watch this video:
”We must hope that, looking backward to 2014 in the years to come, what we lived through will be seen as an ultimate low point from which we rose up and created a better future,” Salil Shetty said.