Human rights advocates in Asia under attack
By Andrew Gilmour*
In February, hundreds of Filipino participants in the peace process, environmental activists and human rights defenders
were labeled “terrorists” by their own government. The security of the individuals on this list is at stake, and some
have fled the Philippines.
The UN independent expert on the rights of indigenous peoples - Victoria Tauli-Corpuz – was on this list. This followed
the vilification only months before of another UN independent expert - Agnès Callamard - who deals with extra-judicial
executions. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared that he wanted to slap her, and later announced that he would
like to throw other UN human rights officials to the crocodiles. The national Commission on Human Rights in the
Philippines was threatened with a zero budget and its former chair, Senator Leila de Lima, is in detention for her
Even if extreme, such sweeping threats against hundreds of civil society representatives, defenders of human rights, and
UN experts labeled “terrorists” in the Philippines are symptomatic of worrying regional trends.
If governments in the region can target high profile human rights defenders and those associated with the UN with
impunity, what is the message to others at community level who are not afforded the same visibility? This is likely to
increase fear in those seeking the protection of the UN and other human rights actors.
Human rights advocates the world over are increasingly threatened, attacked and silenced. The message is clear. No one
is immune and many advocates across the region will be unable to operate freely and without fear of retaliation.
In the run up to the 2018 national elections in Cambodia, the Government has cracked down on the opposition, independent
media and civil society. In February it publicly targeted human rights defenders, including election watchdogs, groups
that had monitored the 2017 commune elections, and land activists accused of supporting a purported foreign-backed
“revolution” to topple the Government.
Within the general backlash against human rights in various corners, there have been a number of cases where individuals
have got into trouble – faced intimidation or reprisals – after sharing information with the UN or participating in a UN
In Myanmar, there were reports of violent reprisals by Tatmadaw, the armed forces, against civilians who met with
Yanghee Lee, UN independent expert on Myanmar, following her visit to Rakhine State. These include killings, beatings,
and rape. Ms. Lee received credible information that Tatmadaw attacked a village in Rakhine a couple of days after her
visit as a measure against the community for those that spoke to her during a visit to the village in 2017. The Tatmadaw
gathered the village men and women together and subjected them to severe mistreatment, beatings, and assaults.
Bogus accusations of abetting terrorism are a common justification that we hear from governments to defend the targeting
of the UN’s important civil society partners. We have countless cases of advocates charged with terrorism, blamed for
cooperation with foreign entities, or accused of damaging the reputation or security of the state.
I recently met with a group of human rights defenders from across South-East and South Asia about their experiences,
which in some cases have been made worse by speaking out or if they share information with the UN. The stories about
these reprisals were common – they have been charged with defamation, blasphemy and disinformation. They are
increasingly threatened and targeted for their work, indeed some have been labeled as terrorists. There were also
accusations of activists being drug addicts or mentally unwell.
Some governments feel threatened by any dissent. They label human rights concerns as “illegal outside interference” in
their internal affairs; or as an attempt to overthrow regimes; or as an attempt to impose alien “Western” values.
Opposition to economic development and investment projects seems to incite particular ire. Agribusiness, extractive
industries, and large-scale energy initiatives, including those that involve indigenous peoples’ land, often bear the
brunt of the backlash.
Women’s rights activists and advocates of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons seem to
be particularly targeted. Many are ostracized by their communities, labelled as outcasts, or branded as immoral. Sexual
violence is part of this backlash, including rape threats.
Those working for religious freedom have been called ‘anti-Islam’, they and their families threatened or harassed. When
advocacy for religious tolerance intersects with that of women’s rights and sexual freedom, the stakes can be even
Civil society in the region face visa restrictions, confiscation of passports, travel bans, and arbitrary police
investigations and detention. Activists’ movements are thwarted and their interactions with those abroad restricted.
They are facing administrative and legal repercussions for their advocacy –selectively applied laws, or measures
undermining their legal legitimacy or ability to receive funding to survive.
In some of the most extreme cases, arbitrary detention, denial of medical treatment, extra-judicial killings, and
disappearance are the result.
Despite what they are facing, the strength and resilience of many of the defenders that we deal with is heartening, and
we owe it to them to support their efforts. There are many countries where civil society remains vibrant, and we are
working closely with them.
Governments that are worried about dissent should see the expression of new ideas as an opportunity for dialogue. At the
same time, violations by non-state actors must be taken as seriously as those by government actors. The international
community must continue to be attentive to these worrying trends.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is important for the collective
human rights community, and the UN membership at large, to recall the circumstances that led to the development of this
Declaration and its unanimous adoption. The Declaration is the most translated document in the world, available in more
than 500 languages, and it is as relevant today as it was on the day that it was proclaimed.
The fact that a growing number of governments (all subject to the Declaration) are engaged in intimidation and reprisals
against members of civil society whose “crime” is that they cooperate with the UN would have the original drafters of
that noble document turning in their graves.
We are taking these allegations seriously, and addressing particular incidents of reprisals with governments. Civil
society has to be heard – for the sake of us all.
* Andrew Gilmour is the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, New York