In its annual report out Thursday, Human Rights Watch painted a negative picture of the climate in the Philippines, Bangladesh and Thailand but credited Malaysia’s new government for moving to fulfill electoral promises of cleaning up the nation’s rights record.
As he unveiled the watchdog’s World Report 2019 that reflects on the state of human rights last year, HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth offered some hope for the future. The big news from 2018 was not continuing authoritarian trends but the growing opposition against them, he said.
“The same populists who spread hatred and intolerance are fueling a resistance that keeps winning battles,” Roth said in launching the report. “Victory isn’t assured but the successes of the past year suggest that the abuses of authoritarian rule are prompting a powerful human rights counterattack.”
The 674-page report took a harsh stance against Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, launched shortly after he took office in June 2016. It cited Philippine drug enforcement figures that nearly 5,000 drug users had died in police operations as of the end of September 2018, while police presented their own figures listing nearly 23,000 deaths since the war began. The police said these were classified as “homicides under investigation.”
Human Rights Watch also took the Philippines to task for having the fastest-growing AIDS epidemic in Asia – pointing out that the number of new cases jumped from 4,400 in 2010 to 12,000 in 2017, the last year figures were available.
More than 80 percent of new infections were among men and transgender women who have sex with men. An estimated 68,000 Filipinos are HIV-positive.
Another Southeast Asian nation, Indonesia, was cited for an AIDS outbreak.
“Indonesian authorities continued to fail to up hold basic rights of LGBT people, fueling a spike in the country’s HIV epidemic. Police arbitrary and unlawful raids on private LGBT gatherings, assisted by militant Islamists, has effectively derailed public health outreach efforts to vulnerable populations,” the report stated.
“HIV rates among men who have sex with men have consequently increased five-fold since 2007 from 5 percent to 25 percent.”
The report credited Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s administration for taking “small steps” to protect the rights of some of the nation’s most vulnerable people – but also pointed out the president had not lived up to all of his promises since taking power in 2014.
In April 2018, Jokowi announced that he would ban marriages involving children but has yet to provide a timetable for the new law to be enacted.
Last year, he also pleaded for religious tolerance in his State of the Nation address, but “his administration has failed to translate his rhetorical support for human rights into meaningful policies,” the report said.
“There is little sign that Jokowi is willing to extend the necessary political capital to make human rights a meaningful component of his campaign for re-election in 2019,” HRW said.
On Thursday, Jokowi debated former President Prabowo Subianto on human rights issues in the first of five televised debates leading up to the presidential election on April 17.
HRW’s report also focused on two nations that held general elections in 2018, praising Malaysia for ousting their “corrupt leaders.”
But it challenged Bangladesh’s government for lodging “politically motivated trumped-up cases against thousands of opposition supporters, and violated international standards on freedom of speech by cracking down on media and civil society,” leading up to the December vote that saw the ruling Awami League and its allies swamp the competition.
In Malaysia, then-Prime Minister Najib Razak intensified suppression of freedom speech prior to the May vote.
“In March, the government passed the Anti-Fake News law, broad legislation imposing up to seven years in prison for anyone who maliciously spreads ‘fake news,’ deliberately defined vaguely to allow maximum discretion for the government to target critics,” the report said.
Meanwhile, a coalition led by Mahathir Mohamad ran on an election manifesto that promised to abolish oppressive laws, ensure accountability for police abuses, improve the situation for refugees, ratify international human rights treaties and make the nation’s human rights record respected by the world, the report said.
“By the end of the year, the new government had begun to take steps to fulfill some of those promises,” it said, adding that freedom of speech had improved dramatically under Prime Minister Mahathir’s government.
With regard to Bangladesh, the report pointed to the 107-day detention of acclaimed photojournalist Shahidul Alam after he criticized human rights violations in a television interview and on Facebook. Alam had been commenting on student-led street protests in Dhaka after two of their fellow students had been struck and killed by a speeding bus.
In September, the Bangladesh government passed the Digital Security Act to monitor electronic communications in an effort to address “abusive provisions in the Information and Communication Technology Act.” HRW said the act actually contained new sections criminalizing free speech.
“Human rights groups remained under pressure, due to restrictions on accessing foreign funding. Journalists reported threats and intimidation to prevent any criticism of the government,” HRW said.
In Thailand, the report challenged the junta-led government for delaying “lifting severe restrictions on free expression, association and assembly, despite announcing a national election in February 2019.”
It said authorities had routinely enforced censorship while threatening media outlets; disrupted academic seminars and public discussion about human rights and democracy; and arrested at least 130 pro-democracy activists on illegal assembly charges.
In addition, pledges to protect human rights defenders have not been fulfilled.
“The killings of more than 30 human rights defenders and civil society activists since 2001 remained unresolved. Military cover-up and shoddy police work hampered the efforts to prosecute soldiers who shot dead teenage ethnic Lahu activist Chaiyaphum Pasae in March 2017 in Chiang Mai province.”