CSOs condemn human rights violations by ASEAN states during Covid-19 pandemic

In conjunction the 36th ASEAN Summit, held virtually on 26 June, 45 civil society organizations issued a joint statement condemning the increase in human rights violations by ASEAN member states during the Covid-19 pandemic, and also criticising the exclusion of civil society organisations from participating in the summit.

ASEAN “has failed to hold its Member States accountable for the spike in human rights violations and erosion of the fundamental freedoms across the region over the past six months,” said the statement, which goes on to demand that ASEAN “take immediate and meaningful action to demand justice and accountability from its Member States, particularly in upholding principles of human rights and ensuring participation of civil society in the process.”

“Throughout the pandemic, ASEAN States have been accumulating excessive power through emergency measures and have acted through law enforcement apparatuses legitimated by public health crisis response measures. As a result, a sharp increase in cases of human rights violations and fundamental freedoms is evident across the region,” said the statement, which gives the example of the Emergency Decree currently in effect in Thailand, the anti-terrorism bill being fast-tracked in the Philippines “over the mounting needs of the public exacerbated by the pandemic,” as well as a range of “Draconian laws” implemented to “curb free speech, censor online content and silence political expression […] under the pretext of a public health response” in other ASEAN countries including Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The statement also notes that there are “numerous cases of arbitrary arrests, detentions and violent crowd dispersals when civil society raised the alarm on human rights abuses arising from the pandemic,” which has a severe effect on “the most marginalized communities, particularly labourers, undocumented migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and those in poverty.”

Meanwhile, the statement notes, “threats and intimidation are increasingly aimed at those who criticize the government’s efforts during the pandemic,” most of all journalists, community rights activists, LGBTQ activists, migrants, refugees, and civil society organisations, all of whom were subjected to “judicial harassment, arbitrary detention in prison facilities that lack sufficient healthcare systems, cyberattacks, smear campaigns and enforced disappearances. Some of the cases recorded have led to death.”

“The attacks against people who demand more equitable government responses to the pandemic is an assault on human rights. ASEAN, as a regional body, cannot afford to continue being silent toward the erosion of fundamental freedoms by its Member States,” said Shamini Darshni Kaliemuthu, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) Executive Director.

The statement also expressed concerns that “women and girls are subjected to increased burden and violence as gender stereotypes and pre-existing vulnerabilities are being exacerbated by the pandemic,” noting the rise in domestic violence in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, as well as the fact that most frontline healthcare and social care workers are women.

“The groups were also alarmed by the rise of xenophobic and anti-Rohingya sentiments, characterised by hate speech and fake news in social media in Malaysia and Thailand, and the lack of a regional condemnation of hateful rhetoric,” the statement also said.

“For ASEAN to be relevant to its people, it must demand accountability from its Member States to uphold the universal principles of human rights during and after the pandemic. Measures taken by ASEAN Member States under the pretext of cultural relativism and state sovereignty that deviate from international standards of human rights must not be tolerated, as it only exacerbates the struggles faced by vulnerable groups in the region,” said the statement, signed by 45 civil society organisations from all over ASEAN.

Meanwhile, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) also issued an open letter addressed to Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Prime Minister of Vietnam, which is the current ASEAN chair, calling for ASEAN leaders to address human rights concerns during the Covid-19 pandemic at the summit and call for them to make sure that “ASEAN’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath places human rights at its centre.

“While our region should be commended for being reasonably successful in containing the spread of the virus, the pandemic exposed major weaknesses and inequalities in our governance systems. The region failed to protect those in the most vulnerable situations, in particular its migrant workers and refugees. It has also seen a surge in restrictions on freedom of expression and in hateful rhetoric against marginalised groups,” said the letter.

“However, the gathering of the region’s leaders under your chairmanship this week presents an opportunity to demonstrate that ASEAN can learn and grow from these challenging times, by ensuring that from this point on, our region’s policies are inclusive of all and promote a more just, sustainable and equal society.”

The letter calls for the region to “move collectively towards a greater environmental sustainability and social justice,” by taking the opportunity to “move away from a reliance on fossil fuels and coals and towards renewable energy projects” as well as making sure “post-COVID19 economic stimulus investments […] reach small and medium-sized enterprises, and be used to prioritise the creation of sustainable and decent employment.”

The letter also raised concerns about the disproportionate effects of the pandemic on women and girls, who are “more at risk of falling into poverty and facing food insecurity, and have also faced restricted access to sexual and reproductive health services, as well as a rise in sexual and gender based violence.” It then went on to call for the region’s post-Covid-19 policies to “take into consideration this differentiated impact, be gender responsive and ensure women’s equal participation in all policies and decision making.”

The letter also expressed concerns over “the rise in xenophobic and hateful rhetoric” and urged ASEAN leaders to “immediately publicly acknowledge the risk that hate speech represents and to speak out against discrimination of all kinds.”

It also addressed the Rohingya refugee situation, calling for member states to “organise urgent collective search and rescue operations for boats carrying Rohingya refugees and to organise for their proper disembarkation” as well as to use “[their] political leverage to ensure that Myanmar addresses the root causes of the human rights crisis in Rakhine State, ends all attacks on civilians and restores the rights of the Rohingya.”

“In the spirit of a “Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN,” we hope that Vietnam will use its leadership to ensure that ASEAN’s “new normal” is one of a truly people-centered ASEAN – that is inclusive, sustainable, and that benefits all,” said the letter