A lack of U.S. engagement is contributing to a “declining, dictatorial and more dangerous environment” in Southeast Asia, where the abuse of fundamental rights is increasing alongside the killing of land activists, Human Rights Watch says.
Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch Asia division Phil Robertson was speaking at a forum held in Thailand late last month to discuss strategy and security in the face of a “global crackdown” against “environmental defenders.”
While there was growing recognition internationally of the link between land seizures and human rights abuse, under President Donald Trump the United States – previously a key participant in pressing governments for change – had simply ceased high-level advocacy on rights, Robertson told the Forest Defenders forum in Chiang Mai.
“Even in cases where you have diplomats who at the local level are prepared to continue to advocate for human rights, they don’t get much support at all from Washington. And the smarter governments realize that these diplomats are home alone,” he said, pointing to the timing of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s pre-election crackdown in Cambodia.
A recently released report by NGO Global Witness documented the killing around the world last year of 207 environmental defenders – the term includes ordinary citizens, often from indigenous or ethnic minority groups, who peacefully protect their land, together with more organized activists or advocates.
It was the sixth such annual report by the organization and shows numbers which continue to climb – in the last four years doubling from an average of two to four deaths per week as a “global rush” for land and resources gathered pace, Global Witness said.
Given the difficulty of collecting and verifying data, the number was almost certainly a sizable underestimate, according to the authors.
Fifty of the documented killings occurred in Asia, 48 in the Philippines, which became one of the deadliest countries in the world for activists under President Rodrigo Duterte.
The Philippines figure represented a 71 percent increase on environment-related killings in 2016 and the highest ever tally for an Asian nation – with suspected military involvement in 56 percent of cases.
One of seven mass killings recorded in the report took place on the island of Mindanao, where eight members of an indigenous farming community resisting the confiscation of land for a coffee plantation were gunned down by a team of soldiers and marines at Lake Sebu.
The military had falsely claimed the massacre occurred in a confrontation with the Communist New People’s Army.
According to Global Witness, the body count represents only the extreme end of a spectrum of repressive tactics used to silence land defenders, including death threats, arrests, intimidation, cyberattacks, sexual assault and lawsuits.
The scale and severity of the issue is echoed in a report to be submitted to the UN Human Rights Council this month by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz.
In it the Special Rapporteur describes a “global crisis” of escalating violence and legal harassment against indigenous people linked to agriculture, mining, infrastructure and extraction projects.
“The intensified competition over natural resources led by private companies, at times with government complicity, has placed indigenous communities seeking to protect their traditional lands at the forefront as targets of persecution,” the report says.
Tauli-Corpuz herself became a victim of persecution in the Philippines after speaking out about the massacre in Mindanao.
Her name, together with those of many other rights advocates and indigenous leaders, appeared in a list of people identified as members of the Communist Party and New People’s Army, which the government is seeking to outlaw as terrorist organizations.
The accusation was “baseless and irresponsible” and her name has since been removed from the list, Tauli-Corpuz says, but many others who have been falsely accused remain on it.
One of those branded a terrorist was Beverly Longid, from the Philippines-based International Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self-Determination and Liberation.
Over many years, activists in the country have experienced “a criminalization of dissent,” Longid said, facing trumped up charges such as murder, arson and people-trafficking, as well as violence.
Media reports from the Philippines suggest Duterte is extending an orchestrated and deliberate program of vilification that has paved the way for extra-judicial killings in his “war on drugs” to a crackdown on activists and leftists.
“In a situation of civil war, combatants are open targets for attack. So when they associate us or tag us as members of these revolutionary organizations and come out with a case that will declare us as such, the list is actually a virtual hit list,” Longid warned.
Around the region there is a “proliferation of legislation” restricting fundamental freedoms, according to Katia Chirrizi, from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Southeast Asia – including laws on counterterrorism, security and NGOs.
“Of course often these laws lead to the judicial harassment of human rights defenders with a chilling effect on their exercise of free speech,” Chirrizi said.
Several attendees of the forum were former members of Mother Nature Cambodia, an activist group heavily targeted by Cambodian authorities for its exposure of environmental abuses and outspoken criticism of the responsible government ministers on social media.
Between 2015 and 2017, five members of the organization spent months in jail awaiting trial on charges related to their peaceful activism, while co-founder Alex Gonzalez-Davidson was deported from the country.
Last year the group – which under Cambodia’s Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations was required to be registered with the Ministry of Interior and operate with “political neutrality” – was dissolved.
With the decline of independent media and the rise of self-publishing, the internet had emerged as “the new battleground between governments and civil society,” Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson told the Forest Defenders forum.
The Computer Crime Act in Thailand, the Official Secrets and Telecommunications acts in Myanmar, and lese majeste laws in Cambodia and Thailand were all examples of legislation framed so broadly that it enabled almost anything to be interpreted as an offence.
SLAPP (strategic litigation against public participation) suits tied people up for years, drained them financially and often resulted in imprisonment when courts weren’t independent, Robertson said.
“So when you talk about demoralizing civil society, the easiest way to do it is to hit them with some sort of lawsuit connected to something they said online. And this is what the governments are starting to understand.”
Even more concerning, according to Robertson, was Vietnam’s draconian cybersecurity law which aims to force critical comment offline, and the fact that a number of governments in the region would like to emulate “the China model” of mass internet control and intensive surveillance.
Reports Google has capitulated on internet freedom and is working on tools with the capacity to censor content for the Chinese market raise “fundamental concerns,” he said.
“The question for the big internet providers – the Facebooks, the Googles, Twitter and others – is: Whose side are you on? Are you on the side of free expression and civil society or are you on the side of big business and making money?”
One development Robertson described as “good news” was progress on the drafting of a legally binding treaty on business and human rights, which would create a greater obligation on states to investigate and prosecute rights violations and force companies to do due diligence on transnational activities.
The Special Rapporteur and Global Witness reports describe a current situation of widespread impunity, with companies often complicit in abuses.
Both entities called for governments, business, and aid and trade partners to implement legal and policy initiatives that prioritize environmental defenders’ safety and ensure accountability when attacks occur.
At the forum, UNOHCHR’s Katia Chirrizi confirmed that government accountability for serious crimes in the region, remains “very low.”
Chirrizi referred indirectly to the enforced disappearances of rural development advocate Sombath Somphone in Laos and Karen land activist “Billy” Rakchongcharoen in Thailand – both of whom were detained by authorities and have not been seen since.
“To our knowledge, based on our work, no emblematic case has been so far brought to justice,” Chirrizi said.
One high-profile case never credibly investigated is that of Cambodian forest activist Chut Wutty.
His 2012 murder by military police led to the creation of the NGO Not1More, which together with EarthRights International and Cambodian Youth Network, organized the August 21-24 Forest Defenders conference.
Jenny Denton is an an Australian-based, award winning freelance journalist with an interest in Southeast Asian issues.