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FOCUS September 2006 Volume 45

Rights of Human Rights Defenders in Asia

Ruki Fernando*

* Mr. Ruki Fernando is the Coordinator of the Human Rights Defenders Program of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA).

While human rights defenders (HRDs) continue frontline work to promote and protect human rights, they themselves suffer repression by state and non-state actors. HRDs continue to become victims of serious human rights violations such as extrajudicial killing, enforced and involuntary disappearance, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, etc.

Restrictions on freedoms of assembly, association, expression and movement impede human rights work. Laws and activities related to anti-terrorism, national security and emergency measures by many Asian governments severely affect them. "NGO laws" adversely affect the legal status, organizational management, and access to funding of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Particular targets and risks

Women HRDs as well as their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender counterparts face greater and different risks because of their gender and the fact that they challenge social stereotypes, social structures, vested economic interests, traditional practices, and interpretations of religious precepts. They are targeted by religious groups, tribal elders, community members, family members and even members of the human rights community that uphold these patriarchal practices. The risks and vulnerabilities which women HRDs face take gender-specific forms ranging from verbal abuse directed exclusively at them, to sexual harassment and rape. They face prejudice, social ostracism and public repudiation from both state and non-state actors HRDs representing disadvantaged communities such as Dalits, indigenous peoples, migrant workers etc., also face specific challenges due to their identity as members of disadvantaged groups and the issues they work on. Those working on issues related to economic, social and cultural rights face increasing challenges at the hands of states as well as business enterprises, transnational corporations and international financial institutions. Those working in situations of armed conflict, particularly intra-state, identity-based conflicts are subjected to threats and violations by state and non-state armed groups and find themselves severely restricted and often labeled unpatriotic and traitors.

Even members and staff of National Human Rights Commissions in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand have come under threats and attacks in the recent past.

Impunity for violations against defenders

Impunity for violations against HRDs continues unabated. Campaigns by the families of the defenders and the local and international human rights groups, and promises by national leaders in Thailand and Indonesia have failed so far to bring the people behind the violations to justice even in prominent cases such as those of Somchai Neelaphaijit and Munir Said Thalib. No one has been held responsible for the hundreds of extrajudicial killing of HRDs in the Philippines. There has been no justice for the series of attacks on journalists, peace activists and humanitarian workers in Sri Lanka, including the execution-style slaying of seventeen aid workers in August 2006.

Impunity for such serious and prominent cases sends a chilling message that those who threaten or commit serious atrocities against HRDs can escape accountability and hence given a license to continue their violations.

Some prominent cases

In December 2005, when the World Trade Organization (WTO) held its 6th ministerial meeting in Hong Kong S.A.R., thousands of activists were restricted to an open space on a cold winter night. This was followed by the arrest of more than 600 activists, who were detained and subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment. Fourteen activists were subjected to prolonged detention and charged with illegal assembly. The Hong Kong courts subsequently dismissed the cases due to lack of evidence.

Just before the annual International Monetary Fund- World Bank (IMF-WB) meeting was held in September 2006, the Singaporean government black- listed almost thirty activists despite their official accreditation by WB and IMF. Peaceful gatherings to express ideas and opinions were also limited to a small area. Twenty-two activists were belatedly taken off the list due to international pressure including from the IMF-WB, but thirteen activists had already been deported. And activists passing through Singapore were harassed on their way to their meeting in nearby Batam island in Indonesia.

Somchai Neelaphaijit, a well-known Muslim human rights lawyer in Thailand, disappeared on 12 March 2004. He fearlessly handled the sensitive cases of Muslim youths charged with involvement in violence in Southern Thailand. These youths were found to have been tortured by the police. Two years later, a Thai Criminal Court convicted a senior police officer of illegal detention of Neelaphaijit. But despite campaigns by his wife, support from NGOs (national, regional and international), and report to a United Nations (UN) human rights body, the masterminds behind Neelaphaijit's disappearance have yet to be brought to justice.

The case of Munir Said Thalib, a prominent Indonesian defender who was poisoned to death in September 2004 on a Garuda Airlines flight to the Netherlands, has remained a mystery. An Indonesian court found a certain Pollycarpus Priyanto guilty of premeditated murder and imposed a 14-year prison sentence. The media has reported that a fact-finding team of the government has earlier submitted to the President of Indonesia a report stating the supposed involvement of the Indonesian National Intelligence Agency (BIN - Badan Inteligen Nasional). But this report has not been made public, and the master- minds behind the murder have yet to be made accountable.

Humanitarian workers and peace activists in the northern and eastern regions of Sri Lanka have become victims of violence. In May 2006, three NGO offices in Sri Lanka were attacked with grenades. In August 2006, seventeen humanitarian workers (belonging to Action Contre la Faim) were murdered. NGO staff and their vehicles, including ambulances, were attacked several times. Several humanitarian workers died or were injured by claymore mine explosions, while the fate of several others remains unknown several months after their abduction. Their access to displaced persons have been restricted, and they suffered harassment and threats of arrest from government security forces who demanded permits from the Ministry of Defence(MOD), which the latter does not require. It is also becoming increasingly difficult for foreign aid workers to obtain work permits and visas. Away from the main theater of war, the northern and eastern regions, several public events on peace organized by peace activists were violently attacked and the Deputy Secretary-General of the government's Peace Secretariat was assassinated. No one has been held accountable or brought to justice in any of these incidents.

The international standards

HRDs can simply be defined as those who individually or in association with others promote and protect human rights, in a peaceful manner. They can be communities struggling for their rights, students, workers, journalists, lawyers, NGO workers, community paralegals, etc.

Their human rights deserve protection like everyone else, but they accept the risk of suffering extreme forms of violation of their human rights, for the cause of victims of human rights violations and often consider these violations and repression as "occupational hazards."

HRDs gained more visibility and recognition during the last decade. The most significant development came in the form of the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms[1] (Declaration) adopted by the UN in 1998, on the eve of a most auspicious event - the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The Declaration gathers the rights of HRDs found in various UN human rights instruments, including legally binding treaties and conventions, into one document; highlights the rights of the HRDs and the duties of the states; is addressed to "everyone" not just to states; and recognizes and legalizes the important role of HRDs.

Despite the unanimous adoption of this Declaration by the UN General Assembly and the passing of more than seven years, no government in Asia has attempted to explicitly incorporate the provisions of the Declaration into domestic laws.

Mechanisms to protect HRDs

HRDs have no recourse at the Asian regional or sub- regional levels for the protection of their human rights, unlike in Africa, Europe and the Americas.[2]

The appointment in 2000 of Ms. Hina Jilani as the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General tasked to look into the situation of HRDs was a ray of hope. She has the mandate to seek, receive, examine and respond to information on the situation of HRDs; dialogue and cooperate with governments and other actors to implement the Declaration; and recommend and follow up strategies to protect HRDs.

Ms. Jilani, a well-known Pakistani human rights defender, submitted "Urgent action letters" and "Allegation letters" regarding individual cases; and reported on the general situation of HRDs the world over. Despite lukewarm cooperation by many states, including Asian states, Ms. Jilani tirelessly advocated better protection, support and recognition of HRDs at national, regional and international levels.

European Union Guidelines

The second and more recent development at the international level was the adoption of the European Union (EU) guidelines on HRDs in 2004. They spell out the commitment of the EU to protect and support the work of HRDs all over the world and have particular relevance to Asian situation.

Based on the guidelines, EU embassies should:

  1. Maintain contacts with HRDs - welcome them to the embassies, visit their areas of work and appoint liaison officers
  2. Provide visible recognition to defenders - provide appropriate publicity, visit them or extend invitations to them
  3. Attend and observe trials of HRDs
  4. Arrange meetings with HRDs during visits of high-level EU officials and raise their individual cases
  5. Promote the use of UN thematic mechanisms by HRDs - facilitate contacts with, and exchange information between, thematic mechanisms and them
  6. Assist in the establishment of networks of HRDs at international level, including support for meetings of HRDs
  7. Help HRDs gain access to resources, including financial, from abroad.

Way forward

For the protection and continued work of HRDs, there is a need to maximize whatever mechanisms are available. HRDs in Asia should make every effort to engage the UN Special Representative.

Likewise, the UN Country Teams, field officers and advisors of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights play an important role and need to proactively engage the HRDs, particularly to ensure better protection for them.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, through its Regional Office for Southeast Asia, can explore ways of playing a more dynamic and proactive role with regards to HRDs.

The Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions (APF) can also explore measures such as having a focal point or special desk on HRDs at the APF secretariat, having a permanent agenda item on HRDs at the annual APF meetings, and proactively advocating for, and helping the adoption of, guidelines by the International Coordination Committee of National Human Rights Institutions on HRDs and the national human rights institutions.

EU missions in Asia, as well as the embassies of EU countries, should act proactively to implement the EU guidelines on HRDs.

National Human Rights Commissions can use their mandates to investigate cases of violations against HRDs and ensure accountability for the violators, advise governments to work for the incorporation of the provisions of the Declaration into national laws or the repeal of laws that violate them, and advocate the cooperation of governments with the UN Special Representative. Awareness-raising about the possibilities of these mechanisms is an important first step.

States have the primary responsibility of ensuring the protection of HRDs and creating a safe and conducive atmosphere for their work. But solidarity and networking among the HRDs sustain and strengthen them.

The tenth anniversary of the Declaration in 2008 provides a good opportunity to create new and strengthened momentum towards the full implementation of the Declaration in Asia.

For further information, please contact: FORUM-ASIA Secretariat, Baan Vichien, Apartment 3B, 220 Soi Sukhumvit 49/12, Klongton Nua, Wattana , Bangkok 10110, Thailand; ph (662) 391 8801(ext. 502); fax (662) 391 8764; e-mail: ruki @;;


1. UNGA - A/RES/53/144, 8 March 1999.

2. There is a Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, and the Human Rights Defenders Unit in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.