Amid shrinking spaces for civil society, continued violations of basic human rights and challenges to democratic institutions, news reports from South Asia are often grim if viewed from a liberal perspective. To monitor the situation and publicize abuses is the role of Human Rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch. While most of the material in their recent report could be termed negative and depressing, our colleague Shuchita Thapar, Program Manager for Human Rights at the Regional Office in New Delhi, has gone through the text in search for the good news. In the following she shares what she terms “human rights wins” in 2018.
In India, the largest country in South Asia, successes came primarily from the judicial system. In 2018, the Supreme Court struck down a colonial-era legislation criminalizing homosexuality, or ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’ after concerted appeals of civil society, lawyers, and academicians. The Supreme Court also restricted access for private players to the controversial government identification scheme, Aadhaar and allowed women between the ages of 10-50 access to a temple in Southern India noting the constitutional right to equality. Finally, the Central government removed legislation facilitating armed forces impunity in the state of Meghalaya and parts of Arunachal Pradesh.
In neighboring Pakistan, 2018 marked the second consecutive constitutional transfer of power between civilian governments. Militant groups caused fewer deaths than in preceding years. The parliament passed landmark legislation according transgender citizens the right to self-identification and expression outlawing employment discrimination. And the Supreme Court suspended the execution of two prisoners with psychosocial disabilities. But pending investigation, these prisoners remain on death row.
Bangladesh was one of the few countries to deploy multiple forms of aid to assist Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. However, this has created much strain on scarce resources, and international agencies have requested assistance from countries around the world.
Nepal’s new attorney general has committed to amending transitional justice mechanisms to be more in line with international standards and Supreme Court orders. The Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, and the Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons followed through on their mandates, hearing testimonies from conflict victims throughout 2018. Still, concerns remain about the functioning of these mechanisms.
Sri Lanka recovered from the brink of a major constitutional crisis in 2018, after President Sirisena dismissed the Prime Minister and replaced him with a former president accused of multiple human rights abuses. However, after the Supreme Court ruled that President Sirisena’s actions were unconstitutional, the crisis ended. An Office of Missing Persons was formed as part of transitional justice processes, which in September urged that interim reliefs be provided to families of missing persons. Sri Lanka also became the first South Asian country to accede to the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions.
The Afghanistan government acceded to the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, enacted legislation criminalizing torture, and established a government commission on torture. However, independent oversight agencies claim the actual practice of torture has not significantly reduced.
And our winner is: The Maldives!
Perhaps the best news of all comes from the Maldives, where opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih defeated sitting President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom following a period of authoritarian rule. Prior to the election, President Gayoom’s government was accused of a number of human rights violations in the first half of 2018. Following the election, the EU congratulated the country on the democratic commitment demonstrated by the people of the Maldives.
“The examples above show resistance to illiberal conditions is well and alive in South Asia,” notes Ms. Thapar. She cautions that the situation in much of the region remains dire, and requires “immediate, concerted, and strong effort from a range of stakeholders to restore baseline respect for human rights.”