Shrinking Democratic Spaces in Asia

Shrinking democratic spaces in Asia

by John Samuel | Published: 23:22, Nov 12,2016

THE real sign of development and democracy is how a country respects, protects and promotes freedom and human rights. The biggest challenge of our times is the increasing gap between the promises and performance of the states and the governments in relation to the protection of freedom and human rights of the people. This challenge is most evident in many countries of Asia, with the shrinking of freedom and democratic spaces and increasing attack on human rights defenders.
Amartya Sen in his acclaimed book Development as Freedom defined development as the expansion of human freedoms and capabilities. However, the biggest paradox among most of the countries in the Asia-Pacific region are that there is a new stress on economic development model that often lead to ‘unfreedoms’ and economic social inequality, where freedoms of people, particularly that of the marginalised groups and poor, are increasingly compromised. There is a resurgence of discriminations and repression of the voices of dissent and democracy in parts of the region. China, the biggest economy in the world, in many ways indicates the rise of ‘unfreedoms’ in the most evident manner despite economic development.
While many countries in the Asia-Pacific region witnessed an unprecedented economic growth, it also paradoxically increased the social and economic inequalities, marginalisation of religious and ethnic minorities and the shrinking of democratic spaces. With new nexus of political and economic elites, there is an elite capture of the governments. The rise of crony capitalism often leads to the destruction of environment and the displacement of poor and marginalised people from their habitat.
The politics of hate, exclusion and violence adversely affect the freedom and human rights in the region. In the past one year, 16 human rights defenders were killed in different parts of Asia. In the past two years, Forum-Asia documented 324 violation and abuses against human rights defenders in the region. Hundreds of human rights activists receive threat from government agencies or non-state actors, religious fanatics and those who preach and practice politics of violence. In the past year alone, there were 108 cases of government harassment and criminalisation. It is estimated that 45 per cent of the 156 human rights defenders killed in 2015 were defenders of environmental, land and indigenous people’s rights. Many countries such as Cambodia, Bangladesh, the Maldives, South Korea, and Thailand adopted restrictive laws that violate the right to association and the ability of civil society to function without fear or favour. Many of the organisations are denied their right to raise resources.
There is an increasing threat to free media and also targeting of the journalists who expose corruption and human rights violations. In many countries, right to information activists, bloggers and writers are specifically targeted by non-state actors, mafias and religious fanatics. For example, in India, academics and journalists are targeted by the police for writing on human rights or conducting human rights investigation. In Pakistan, minority communities and activists are specifically targeted by discriminatory laws and non-state religious fanatics. In Bangladesh, many bloggers and journalists were targeted. In India too, many of the activists and scholars were shot down by religious fanatics. In Cambodia, four well known human rights defenders are in jail.
In March 2016, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution 31/32, reiterating ‘the urgent need to respect, protect, promote and facilitate the work of those defending economic, social and cultural rights as a vital factor contributing towards the realisation of those rights, including as they relate to environmental and land issues and development’. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights Defenders recognises the legitimacy of the work of human rights defenders as well as their need for better protection. Human rights defenders include civil society activists, professional as well as non-professional human rights workers, journalists, lawyers and anyone who work to protect and promote human rights. The UN declaration also codifies the international standards that protect the activity of human rights defenders. As per the declaration, the protected rights of human rights defenders include the right to develop and discuss human rights ideas and to advocate their acceptance; the right to criticise government bodies and agencies and to make proposals to improve their accountability and functioning; the right to provide legal assistance and support in defence of human rights; the right to observe fair trials; the right to communicate with the non-governmental and inter-governmental organisations and right to access resources for the protection of human rights.
Despite the fact UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, human rights and environmental activists and organisations are at the receiving end of the government or religious fanatics or both. The increasing rhetoric on ‘national security’ and ‘national interest’ promoted by corporate and government-controlled media often target all human rights defenders and activists as ‘anti-national’ or working against the ‘national interest’.
Hence, it is time to further promote the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. The forthcoming meeting of human rights practitioners and civic activists in Sri Lanka will not only help to build solidarity of civic and human rights defenders across the region but also help to reclaim the spaces for freedom, human rights and justice in the region.John Samuel is the executive director of the Forum-Asia

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