The Rise of Demagogues and the Risk of a Dark Age Extends to Asia

The Rise of Demagogues and the Risk of a Dark Age Extends to Asia
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What you need to know

A tour around the worsening human rights situation facing many countries in Asia.

In its annual global report released today, Human Rights Watch (HRW) focuses on the rise of populism and the threat to human rights as dangerous demagogues cling to power around the world.

“If the appeal of the strongman and the voices of intolerance prevail, the world risks entering a dark era," warns HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth in his introductory essay to the 687-page report.

“We should never underestimate the tendency of demagogues who sacrifice the rights of others in our name today to jettison our rights tomorrow when their real priority — retaining power — is in jeopardy,” Roth says.

In Asia, despite having several of the world’s most vibrant democracies and many exciting emerging economies, the report shows this dangerous trend is also on display with strongman leaders in North Korea, China, the Philippines, and several other governments across the region failing to live up to their promises to improve the freedoms of their people.


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“More than three decades after pledging to ‘reform and open up,’ there are few signs the Chinese Communist Party intends to change its authoritarian posture. Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, who will remain in power until 2022 and possibly beyond, the outlook for fundamental human rights, including freedoms of expression, assembly, association and religion, remains dire. Authorities’ hostility toward those who advocate for human rights reached new heights in 2016. Some activists who had previously been able to carry out advocacy now find themselves behind bars.”

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The Philippines

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“Rodrigo Duterte took office as president of the Philippines on June 30, 2016. Duterte campaigned on an explicit platform to ‘kill all of you who make the lives of Filipinos miserable,’ including criminal suspects, as part of his vow to ‘solve drugs, criminality, and corruption in three to six months.” At his inauguration, he pledged that his administration would ‘be sensitive to the state’s obligations to promote, and protect, fulfill the human rights of our citizens … even as the rule of law shall at all times prevail.’ During the government’s campaign against illegal drugs, however, Duterte has publicly praised the extrajudicial killing of suspected drug dealers and drug users."

"Philippine human rights groups have linked the campaign and Duterte’s often-fiery rhetoric to a surge of killings by police and unidentified gunmen since he took office, with nearly 4,800 people killed at time of writing. Police say that individuals targeted by police were killed only after they “resisted arrest and shot at police officers,” but have provided no evidence to support the claim. The killings have highlighted the country’s long-standing problem of impunity for abusive state security forces.”

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North Korea


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“North Korea remains one of the most repressive authoritarian states in the world, ruled for seven decades by the Kim family and the Worker’s Party of Korea. During his fifth year in power, Kim Jong-Un continued to generate fearful obedience by using public executions, arbitrary detention, and forced labor; tightening travel restrictions to prevent North Koreans from escaping and seeking refuge overseas; and systematically persecuting those with religious contacts inside and outside the country."

"A 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) report on human rights in North Korea stated that systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations committed by the government included murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortion, and other sexual violence, and constituted crimes against humanity.”

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“President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s rhetorical support for human rights has yet to translate into meaningful policy initiatives to address the country’s serious rights problems. In 2016, Jokowi notably failed to speak out against or otherwise address discriminatory statements and policies issued by senior government and military officials that have fueled violations of the rights of religious minorities and the country’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) population."

"Religious minorities in Indonesia continue to face discriminatory regulations and violent attacks by Islamist militant groups. Impunity for the security forces in the provinces of Papua and West Papua also remains a serious problem and dozens of Papuans remain imprisoned for nonviolent expression of their political views."

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“Malaysia’s human rights situation continued to deteriorate in 2016, with human rights defenders, activists, political opposition figures, and journalists facing harassment and politically motivated prosecution. Those criticizing the administration of Prime Minister Najib Razak or commenting on the government’s handling of the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal have been particular targets."

"The government continues to prosecute individuals for participation in peaceful assembly, in violation of international human rights law. Those holding a demonstration without giving notice or participating in “street protests” are routinely arrested or called in for questioning, and many charged with criminal offenses.”

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“Headed by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Htin Kyaw, the NLD controls a majority of both upper and lower house parliamentary seats in the country’s first democratically elected, civilian-led government since 1962."

"The political transition began promisingly, with the April release of over 200 political prisoners and detainees. Nonetheless, the NLD-led government has thus far not capitalized on its initial momentum in guiding the country toward substantive reform or the creation of democratic institutions."

"Muslim minorities in Burma, in particular the 1.2 million ethnic Rohingya, continue to face rampant and systemic human rights violations."

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“The year was tumultuous for Thailand with the passing of King Bhumibhol Adulyadej on October 13 after a reign of 70 years. The Thai government, led by Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha, repeatedly failed in 2016 to fulfill pledges made to the United Nations General Assembly and Human Rights Council to respect human rights and restore democratic rule. A new constitution, which will entrench unaccountable and abusive military power, was adopted in a referendum marked by repressive tactics against critics of the proposed constitution.”

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“Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) significantly escalated persecution on political grounds, targeting Cambodia’s political opposition, human rights workers, social activists, and public intellectuals on the basis of their real or perceived political opposition to the government and its leader. These abuses appeared aimed to prevent victory or create conditions for overturning victory by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in local and national elections scheduled for 2017 and 2018 respectively."

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“Singapore’s political environment is stifling, and citizens continued in 2016 to face severe restrictions on their basic rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. The government effectively controls print media, and online media outlets are forced to register with the government and post a significant bond. Bloggers and online media that comment on political issues are targeted for prosecution with vague and overly broad legal provisions on public order, morality, security, and racial and religious harmony."

"The government maintains restrictions on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly through the Public Order Act, which requires a police permit for any “cause-related” assembly if it is held in a public place, or if members of the general public are invited. Permits are routinely denied for events addressing political topics.”

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U.S. President Obama, Pakistan's PM Sharif and Germany's Chancellor Merkel attend at the opening session of the Nuclear Security Summit  in The Hague
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“While there were fewer incidents of militant violence in 2016 than in previous years, scores of people were killed in bombings that targeted courts and mosques. Law enforcement and security agencies remained unaccountable for human rights violations and exercised disproportionate political influence, especially on matters of national security and counterterrorism. The military continued to control implementation of a national plan to address terrorism, largely without civilian oversight."

“The government muzzled dissenting voices in nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and media. It passed vague and overbroad cybercrimes legislation installing new curbs of freedom of expression and criminalizing peaceful internet use. Women, religious minorities, and transgender people faced violent attacks, insecurity, and persecution, with the government failing to provide adequate protection and hold perpetrators accountable.”

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"Limits on free speech and attacks on religious minorities, often led by vigilante groups that claim to be supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are an increasing concern in India. In 2016, students were accused of sedition for expressing their views; people who raised concerns over challenges to civil liberties were deemed anti-Indian; Dalits and Muslims were attacked on suspicion they had killed, stolen, or sold cows for beef; and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) came under pressure due to India’s restrictive foreign funding regulations."

"There were also some positive developments in 2016. The Narendra Modi government took steps toward ensuring greater access to financial services such as banking, insurance, and pensions for economically marginalized Indians and launched a campaign to make modern sanitation available to more households."

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“Japan is a strong democracy with rule of law and an active civil society. Basic freedoms of expression, association, and assembly are well-respected. However, in February 2016 the Internal Affairs and Communications minister prompted an outcry when she said the government may shut down broadcasters if they repeatedly air programs that run counter to political impartiality. The United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression voiced concerns during his visit in April that the Broadcast Act gives regulatory authority to the government instead of an independent third party."

"The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its allies scored a sweeping victory in Upper House elections in July, appearing to pave the way for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to realize his longstanding ambition to initiate significant constitutional amendments. LDP proposals in 2012 for constitutional amendments would significantly weaken human rights articles of the current constitution.”

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“Political instability persisted through 2016, with yet another change in government. A new political coalition, led by Maoist Prime Minister Pushpa Kumar Dahal, took over in July, offering some hope for a breakthrough in the political stalemate. It was the ninth government to be formed over the last eight years, damaging efforts to implement human rights protections.”

“A new constitution was adopted in September 2015 but violent protests over the failure to address demands for greater inclusion by minority communities, particularly in the southern plains, stalled efforts to enforce rights or provide justice for wartime abuses.”

“Government efforts to halt the country’s high rate of child marriage inched forward, but were stalled by lack of political will and buy-in across government ministries.”

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Access the complete Human Rights Watch World Report 2017 here.

Editor: Edward White