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Asia's shaky commitment to human rights

Recent violence shows scant concern for rights defenders

  • Renato Mabunga, Manila
  • International
  • May 20, 2014
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Recent events in Asia have highlighted the sorry character of many states in their supposed commitment to human rights. The silence and failure of Asian governments to act on rights abuses erode the façade of witty rhetoric, and expose the true nature of their administrations. 

On May 15, six armed men tried to abduct Mohammad Nur Khan, director of the non-government Ain O Salish Kendra of Bangladesh. The attempt on Khan was linked to his campaign against involuntary disappearances and extrajudicial executions allegedly perpetrated by the government’s Rapid Action Battalion.

Khan had received death threats and appealed to the courts for protection prior to his abduction, but to no avail.

On May 7, Rashid Rehman, a prominent lawyer and human rights defender in Pakistan, was killed for defending people wrongfully accused of blasphemy. He received threats from accusers even during court hearings. 

Despite making appeals, Rehman was denied any protection by the state, even from the court that witnessed the mockery to the country's supposed democratic institution. 

Rehman’s case is just the latest in a chain of violent acts against lawyers, journalists and activists promoting human rights and democracy in Pakistan.

On May 13, the Punjab police filed blasphemy charges against 68 lawyers at the request of a Sunni leader in connection with protest actions calling for the arrest of a senior police official. The lawyers were protesting against the beating and detention of one of their colleagues following an argument with the police official. 

The lawyers were charged with blasphemy because they allegedly called the official – whose name happens to be shared by a revered Islamic historical figure – a "dog" during the protest rally.

The charges demonstrate the way that those in power can use blasphemy laws as a tool to silence rights defenders, or anyone with whom authorities have a quarrel.

Following the arbitrary arrest and detention of Ruki Fernando and Fr Praveen Mahesan in Sri Lanka on March 16 under the country’s Prevention of Terrorism Act, human rights defenders in the country have been feeling the fury of the state. The situation worsened after the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution calling Sri Lanka's Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights to look into allegations of rights violations. 

The recent crackdown in Sri Lanka is an explicit warning by the government of reprisal against anyone found to be providing information on rights abuses to the United Nations.

On May 9, Vann Sopath of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights was threatened and dragged by security guards out of the Khun Sear Import Export Company while he was documenting the demolition of houses in Phnom Penh.

On the same day, the Supreme Court of Cambodia denied bail for 21 detained labor rights activists who participated in a nationwide protest. 

In the Philippines, Menelao Barcia, a land activist in the province of Pampanga was shot dead on May 2 after leading farmers who were claiming their right to the land they have been tilling for years.

Asia remains the worst place for human rights defenders. It is a region where faith is always put to the test, and the indomitable spirit of peoples continue to aspire for change in the midst of situations of despair and uncertainty. 

Common to all cases of attacks against human rights defenders is their willingness to sacrifice for others, the same compassion that strikes at the very heart of greed and authoritarianism of the powers-that-be in the region. Theirs is a story of defiance to authority. Their solidarity with the poor earn them intimidation, repression, and for many, martyrdom. 

Greed has blinded the world with power. It has corroded the sense of service and governance in many Asian states. Asian leaders have been amassing wealth and power and have been crushing the opposition.

Greed feeds on authority, as the latter holds the power to quash dissent. Many defenders might have fallen, but the spark they ignited will hopefully inflame those of us who remain to battle the evils of growing tyranny in the region.

Renato Mabunga is chairman of Human Rights Defenders, a lobbyist at the UN Human Rights Council and a regional educator on human rights.

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