Human rights, environment activists unsafe in Asia: Report

688 cases of violations and abuses recorded in 18 countries in 2017, 2018

By Kiran Pandey
Published: Tuesday 18 June 2019
Photo: Getty Images

Asia continues to be a dangerous place for defenders of human and environment rights, even after 20 years of United Nations Declaration on Human right defenders (HRDs), according to a report. 

The biennial report, titled Defending In Numbers, by the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM‐ASIA), documented 688 cases of violations and abuses affecting 4,854 people — including human rights organisations, local communities and media outlets — across 18 countries in the continent between 2017 and 2018.

Most common forms of violation were:

  • Judicial harassment (327 cases)
  • (Arbitrary) arrest and detention (249 cases)
  • Violence (164 cases)

“Across Asia, HRDs are threatened, harassed, persecuted, and at times killed for promoting and protecting human rights,” said Michel Forst, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of human rights.

“Many of their rights inscribed in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders are continuously violated, even as 2018 marked the 20th year anniversary of its adoption,” Forst added.

Most victimised activists

Fifty per cent of the total 688 cases in the year have been against those fighting for the cause of democracy and access to land and environmental rights, the report showed. 

Over 210 cases were against pro-democracy defenders — the most targeted group of HRDs. Between 2017 and 2018, pro-democracy defenders were harshly targeted with violations such as: judicial harassment (123 cases), arbitrary arrest and detention (81 cases), (41 cases) and violence (24 cases), six of which resulted in the death of the defender.

This was followed by land and environmental right activists — fighting to access natural resources. Of the 688 cases, 135 marked them as victims.

The activists include indigenous and tribal peoples, farming and peasant groups and other local communities, whose land, life, and livelihoods are threatened by the exploitation of the environment and the establishment of development projects that violate people’s rights.

The violations were most common in Philippines (39 cases), Vietnam (23 cases) and India (17 cases).  

Besides judicial harassment (73 cases), they were also harmed by violence (59 of the 164 total cases). They were also affected in 34 out of the 61 total cases of recorded killings, according to the report.  

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and their staff (132 cases), defenders of women rights (126 cases) and journalists (87 cases) were also heavily targeted in 2017-2018, the report noted.

Both state, non-state actors behind abuse of HRDs

State actors such as the police, the judiciary and armed forces were ranked as the number one perpetrator of harassment and abuse against HRDs, the report stated. These were complicit in 520 of the 688 cases recorded.

Besides, the role of non-state actors in harassing land and environmental defenders was increasingly common between 2017 and 2018.

This primarily includes businesses and corporations in the mining and extractives industries and agri-businesses, which are competing to access natural resources for profit or otherwise seeking to implement large-scale development projects with little regard for its impact on the surrounding communities or environment.

As development projects proliferate and the competition for natural resources increase, the situation of activists fighting for the cause of environment is expected to worsen unless measures are established for their protection.

According to the United Nations mandated Sustainable Development Goals (Goal 16) states must protect fundamental freedoms in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.

The human costs associated with these attacks on HRDs cannot be easily quantified but if states do not take requisite actions to halt this onslaught, key targets of Agenda 2030 will be missed.

The report recognises the need for action to be taken by various stakeholders in order to create a safer and more enabling environment for these defenders.

It also calls upon the corporations to comply with the guiding principles for business and human rights while implementing the United Nations ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ framework and other international human rights standards. 

It has also asked the government to ensure that all laws comply with international human rights standards and the judicial processes remain just and transparent.

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