On Monday 13th of March 2022, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (‘Forum Asia’) hosted an event on the situation of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) in the Asian region for the 52nd session of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council in Geneva. This event, moderated by Ahmed Amad, Programme manager for UN Advocacy at Forum-Asia, featured four speakers: Mary Lawlor (UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders), Khin Ohmar (Progressive Voices Myanmar), Horia Mosadiq (Safety and Risk Mitigation Organisation, Afghanistan) and Benny Agus Prima (Human Rights Defenders Programme Manager, Forum-Asia).
Forum-Asia is a long term partner of the United Nations’ Human Rights Defenders mandate in highlighting and providing support for Human Rights Defenders in the Asian region and has long played an essential role in connecting Asian defenders to UN and regional mechanisms. An overview of the data and numbers produced by the Asian Forum on the human rights violations faced by defenders in the Asian region is available here.
Human rights defenders are individuals who, alone or as part of a larger group, work peacefully to defend human rights. Because they are often on the frontline of publicly addressing violations of human rights, they are extremely vulnerable to abuse from powerful stakeholders and state officials at the root of such violations. The rights and status of human rights defenders is recognized by the United Nations in line with the idea that “Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels”.
In 2021-2022, Forum-Asia documented an unprecedented number of cases of human rights violations against defenders: 1,627 cases with an estimate of 4,433 individuals affected – including family members of defenders. This represents a serious rise since the previous years which is largely attributable to the co-occurrence of the situation in Myanmar and Afghanistan. Moreover, such numbers are most likely a large underestimation of the actual situation as they cannot reflect cases that went unreported. Benny Agus Prima highlights the most common human rights violations faced by defenders in the Asian region. Most prevalently, governments use a blend of judicial and administrative harassment in order to cut defender’s access to resources, effectively making their work unsafe if not impossible. Such harassment does not stop at the individual level but often reaches relatives and homes of defenders in order to create additional coercion and pressure. Furthermore, defenders are largely faced with physical violence, intimidation and threats. Finally, HRDs are disproportionately facing arbitrary arrests leading to prolongated detention in inhuman conditions, in some cases including acts of torture. Such arrests are frequently justified by states through the use of repressive laws such as anti-terrorism and treason provisions that allow for long detention periods and very little to no protection of the accused. Forum-Asia notes that 83% of cases reported for the 2021-2022 period were perpetrated by state actors directly.
Altogether, the speakers highlighted multiple issues affecting the situation of defenders in Asia both as a global issue and as specific situations ongoing in Afghanistan and Myanmar. While all countries have very different policies and responses to the work of defenders, some common themes can be drawn.
The first point relates to the use of new technologies in creating new forms of surveillance. An interesting remark brought by the Special Rapporteur on that issue is the necessity to realise that, although the technology evolves, problems of illegal surveillance have always been a concern for HRDs and thus, answers to those issues are not far from what we already know and apply. However, it is still relevant to mention the rise of the use of such technology in repressing defenders. Khin Ohmar mentions the use of Facebook accounts as a tool to scrutinize the actions and political affiliations of young people in Myanmar. She mentions reports of young persons being stopped by authorities and forced to unlock their mobile phones and show their Facebook account. Similarly, military intel uses undercover profiles to monitor information shared online. Such situations often lead to large fines or the arrest of individuals either on the spot or only a few hour after posting their opinion online, even when using indirect language. On the 11 of December 2019, the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar sent an internal communication to Facebook regarding the ban of many activists and HRDs from the platform. Since then, there is little evidence of action taken directly by Facebook to remedy the situation. Khin Ohmar notes that some account seem to have been reactivated while other defenders created new accounts following their release from arbitrary detention which have remained active.
When tackling issues linked to social media and digital technologies, it is fundamental to mention the disparate impact the development of such forms of communication has had on the situation of children HRDs. Access to social media and online tools has helped the mobilisation of young persons in speaking out about human rights violations and climate urgencies they witness. Mary Lawlor, the Special Rapporteur on HRDs, has made it a point of her mandate to create more dialogue with young defenders, taking into account their advice and views on current and future challenges. Forum-Asia notes that 198 cases were directly concerning the targeting of student and youth defenders.
Another major issue that was raised in the Asian region is the acute vulnerability of women HRDs (WHRDs). Forum-Asia reported a total of 439 cases of violations committed against women in their capacity as defenders. The harm faced by WHRDs is inherently higher due to systemic gender discrimination which has been exacerbated by HRDs’ growing presence online. This issue is particularly raised by Horia Mosadiq concerning the current context in Afghanistan. Since 2021, the talibans have enacted over a hundred decrees against women and girls’ rights raging from bans to access to public places such as parks and bars, to accessing education and working in any sector apart from the medical and health field. The majority of NGOs led by women were forced to shut down and faced severe administrative repression – particularly seeing their paperwork systematically denied. Similarly, women protestors are disproportionately targeted. Horia Mosadiq refers to this situation as a ‘gender apartheid’ creating effective separation of society according to gender identity and gender social roles. Similar issues are present in Myanmar as well. Khin Ohmar put the emphasis on the large scale use of sexual assault and rape as a weapon of war by the military. Acts of gender-based persecution as defined by the Rome Statute have been documented and recognized by the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in its recent policy paper on the crime of gender persecution as well as the ICC’s investigation report on the situation in Myanmar.
In response to those observations, all speakers put forward recommendations to different actors such as the need to accentuate pressure on relevant authorities to release and ensure the protection of defenders and the necessity to make available and accessible resources to support the work of HRDs and civil society in crisis area. Generally, it is a large call for the international community to take a strong consolidated action to hold perpetrators of human rights violations against defenders accountable. As highlighted by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of HRDs, drawing up clear recommendations as an answer to the dire situation of defenders in the Asian region is both complex and straightforward. If states followed the commitments they have undertaken through international documents, things would be much easier and safer for defenders and the people they are advocating for. But it does not stop there, states must be proactive in creating accountability for state officials perpetrating such acts. More importantly, such change will not happen overnight, work must be constant and cohesive in supporting the status and safety of human rights defenders all over the world.
On the 15th of march 2022, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders will present an upcoming report highlighting the successes and achievement of defenders over the last 25 years. During the side event, the Special Rapporteur put the emphasis on the importance of showing how resilience and perseverance are vital ingredients in making good things happen, reminding everyone that “not much happens without persistence, not much happens without hope”.
Human Rights Defenders who might find themselves in danger are called to put a communication through to the UN Special Rapporteur and consult the tools available here.