World events of the last year have triggered a momentous shift in a protracted human rights revolution which now teeters on a knife-edge, according to Amnesty International. The Amnesty International Report 2011, released today, identifies specific restrictions on free speech in 89 countries, highlights cases of prisoners of conscience in 48 countries, documents torture and other ill-treatment in at least 98 countries, and reports on unfair trials in at least 54 countries. Speaking at the launch of the report in Bangkok, Somchai Homlaor, the chairman of Amnesty International Thailand said that the report “reveals the systemic discrimination and insecurity that prevent progress in law from becoming a reality on the ground." Amnesty International called for governments to back reform rather than repression. Governments in the Middle East and North Africa should have the courage to allow reform, guarantee the equality of all people in particular by ensuring women’s full participation in society, the watchdog said. The report says it has been a bad year for freedom of expression in countries across the Asian region. Part of this appears to be a pushback against the explosion of social media, citizen journalism and blogging that has swept Asia in the past few years, Amnesty says. Countries that previously suggested they were simply waiting for economic development before delivering on civil and political rights have reneged on those promises. The report singles out China and Vietnam as countries were existing rights have been rolled back as economic power has grown. Some governments simply paid lip-service to human rights in regional or global institutions, while simultaneously trying to stamp out domestic pressure from activists, journalists, bloggers and online whistleblowers, the report says. Despite the setbacks, Amnesty says there has been some improvement in the Asia-Pacific region. It nominated five major victories. First, most notable progress came in the field of international or corporate justice. Second, the Indian government’s rejection of a bauxite mine project in Orissa’s Niyamgiri Hills was a landmark victory for the human rights of indigenous communities, which had campaigned for years against the plans spearheaded by UK-based Vedanta Resources and the state-owned Orissa Mining Corporation. Third, the Indian courts handed down the first-ever convictions of those responsible for the deadly Bhopal gas leak in 1984. Fourth, it is the year also saw the first conviction of a Khmer Rouge official for crimes against humanity and war crimes by the UN-backed tribunal in Cambodia – a small but significant step. Fifth, there is momentum built behind calls for an international commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by Myanmar’s military against ethnic minority populations. Myanmar has released Aung San Suu Kyi after many years under some form of detention. In Thailand itself, there has been a serious erosion of freedom of expression. “Official censorship of websites, radio and television stations, and print publications was tightened as freedom of expression remained restricted," said Parinya Boonridrerthaikul, executive director of Amnesty International Thailand. "Violence continued in the internal armed conflict in southern Thailand, with security forces subjecting suspects to torture and other ill-treatment and members of armed groups attacking civilians, particularly teachers. "Anti-government protests in Bangkok and several other provinces were characterized by excessive use of force by security forces, violent acts by some protesters and the detention of several hundred prisoners," she said. Amnesty praised the many people who are fighting for their freedom. "People are rejecting fear. Courageous people, led largely by youth, are standing up and speaking out in the face of bullets, beatings, tear gas and tanks. This is sending a signal to repressive governments that their days are numbered,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty's secretary general, in a press statement released ahead of the launch of the report. “But there is a serious fight-back from the forces of repression,” said Shetty. Nevertheless, “not since the end of the Cold War have so many repressive governments faced such a challenge to their stranglehold on power.” “In the 50 years since Amnesty International was born to protect the rights of people detained for their peaceful opinions, there has been a human rights revolution. The call for justice, freedom and dignity has evolved into a global demand that grows stronger every day.”
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