Asian rights record slated

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 November, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 November, 1994, 12:00am

TIMED to coincide with the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) forum, the New York-based Human Rights Watch/Asia today releases a report accusing Asian governments of sacrificing human rights for economic growth.

The 36-page report, entitled 'Human Rights in the APEC Region: 1994', includes a survey of human rights in the United States, China, Japan, and APEC host country Indonesia.

The group claims that many of the Asian countries, while hailing their glamorous economic success, have turned a blind eye to the frequent abuses of human rights in the region.

The common premise that economic achievements could automatically bring about political change had given many Asian governments excuses to suppress human rights for the sake of stability, it says.

'Human Rights Watch/ Asia also questions the assumption that suspension of political and civil rights is necessary to economic growth,' the report says.

It gives plenty of examples where economic development has been used to enhance the legitimacy of authoritarian governments, including such places as Singapore and Indonesia.

The report dismisses the accusations by some Asian governments that non-governmental organisations are a channel for introducing foreign values because of their reliance on foreign funds, saying that such claims are 'hypocrisy in the extreme'.

'Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew was Western-trained; so were many of the most important policy-makers of every East Asian country except perhaps China and Vietnam,' it says.

'Their countries have shown no objection to Western aid . . . Why funding for [non-governmental organisations] should be subversive when grants to government agencies and academic institutions are not is something of a mystery,' it points out.

On China, the report says the last vestige of meaningful international pressure ended with US President Bill Clinton's decision to remove the link between human rights and Most Favoured Nation trading status.

'At least 19 activists were arrested for peaceful activities between March and December, and many of them 'disappeared' after being taken into custody,' it says.

'If human rights policy becomes the de facto responsibility of ministries of commerce or industry, it will be doomed from the start.' While pointing out that 'quiet diplomacy or dialogue in the absence of credible pressure' and mere legislation were useless, the group stresses that many countries are in fact responsive to international pressure.

The Institute of Law of the Chinese Academy of Social Science and other academic institutes were carrying out research projects to understand international human rights and the application in China, the report says.

At the same time, it highlights workers' rights as the 'biggest human rights issue' in Asia as many Asian countries are using cheap labour to attract foreign investment.

The report suggests that a new approach to human rights abuses may 'lie in combining strong bilateral initiatives with building a human rights strategy firmly anchored in the United Nations systems of human rights protection'.

It cites recommendations by various UN bodies and the International Labour Organisation saying they can provide the basis for the better protection of human rights in the region.

'It will require time, resources and co-ordination. It will also require a commitment by governments to use a combination of constructive and punitive measures to press for implementation of these recommendations,' the report says.