For all the differences South Asia's countries insist on, they have depressingly similar attitudes when it comes to human rights. Over the past year, as Amnesty International documents in its Annual Report, civil society organisations have been harassed and shut down, journalists have been targeted, crude colonial-era laws have been unleashed against government critics, new laws have been invoked against critics online, and brutal practices have endured in areas afflicted by conflict.
Scarcely has it been more dangerous to be a blogger or a journalist in South Asia. After a gruesome 2015 in Bangladesh, where five secular bloggers were slain in separate attacks, the machete killings continued without any determined action from the government. LGBTI activists, Hindus, Christians, Sufi Muslims and academics became new targets.
In Pakistan, this year began with the suspicious disappearance of four bloggers. They've all since returned home, but the government hasn't investigated who took them. In 2016, according to the Pakistani Press Foundation, two journalists were killed, 16 injured and one abducted. The case of Zeenat Shahzadi, who was abducted on her way to work in August 2015, remained unsolved. Leading columnist Cyril Almeida was subject to a travel ban by the government for writing an article on tensions between the civilian government and the military.
In India, home to a lively media, two journalists were also killed last year. Karun Mishra was killed by gunmen in Uttar Pradesh, apparently for reporting on illegal soil mining. Rajdeo Ranjan, a journalist with Hindustan, who had faced threats from political leaders for his writing, was shot dead in the town of Siwan.
Freedom of expression was curtailed by the authorities in several cases. An outdated sedition law was used to target three students at Jawaharlal Nehru University in February for allegedly raising “anti-national” slogans. In the same month, an academic was arrested on the same charge by the Delhi police. India has also used the draconian, emergency-era Foreign Contribution Regulation Act to harass NGOs, and cancel or refuse to renew the foreign funding licenses of dozens of organisations without valid reasons.
Activities online have come under increasing assault. In Bangladesh, a 22-year-old student, ran afoul of the country's Information and Communications Technology Act for allegedly making “derogatory remarks” about political personalities on Facebook. In a similar case, two men were arrested in India's Madhya Pradesh under the Information Technology Act for allegedly sharing a satirical image of a Hindu nationalist group. Pakistan, not one to be left behind, passed the Prevention of Electronic Crime Act last year, giving the authorities broad and invasive powers to monitor citizens and censor online expression. Nepal arrested and expelled a Canadian lawyer, Robert Penner, claiming that he was sowing “social discord” through his Twitter account.
Repressive laws continue to hinder Sri Lanka's transition out from under the shadow of the decades-long conflict there. Despite commitments to deliver on accountability for alleged crimes under international law, the authorities made frequent use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), despite the government's 2015 pledge to repeal it. Tamils suspected of links to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) continued to be detained under the PTA, which permits extended administrative detention and piles the burden of proof onto the detainee alleging torture or other ill-treatment.
It is a problem that was noted by the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, who said the practice persists on a visit to the country last May. While the problem is at levels lower than during Sri Lanka's conflict, impunity still prevails for both old and new cases. The government is similarly failing to hold people accountable for enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions that took place during the conflict.
In Afghanistan, the conflict has been widening. As the Taliban and other armed groups seize more territory, punctuating their advances with horrific attacks on civilians, the number of people displaced has risen to record numbers. More than 1.5 million people now languish in overcrowded camps, where they go without adequate food and water in freezing temperatures.
The humanitarian catastrophe is set to worsen as the world turns its back on Afghan refugees and asylum-seekers. In Pakistan, even as the UN noted that civilian casualty figures have reached their highest point since records began being compiled in 2009, the UN refugee agency worked with the Pakistani authorities to forcibly return tens of thousands of Afghan refugees. The returns breached the international principle of non-refoulement: people cannot be sent to a country where they are at risk of serious human rights abuses. That the UN is directly complicit in this does not bode well for the rights of refugees in the region.
Like so many other countries who have abandoned refugees over recent years, Pakistan justified its behaviour on grounds of national security. The government alleged that the refugee camps hosted armed groups. While countries are entitled to take necessary steps to protect their populations, these must never come at the cost of human rights.
It's a principle that the Pakistani authorities have abandoned in Karachi and Baluchistan, where security operations have perpetuated a range of human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests, torture and other ill-treatment, and extrajudicial executions. And it's a principle the Indian authorities abandoned in Jammu and Kashmir last year, where authorities imposed curfews across the valley and security forces deployed excessive and unnecessary force against protestors, even blinding hundreds of young people with the use of inherently indiscriminate pellet shotguns.
Instead of replicating each other's failures on human rights in a race to the bottom, South Asia's countries might want to focus their rivalries instead on who can provide a better future for their people – where each country is distinguished by the value it puts on human dignity.
The writer is Amnesty International's South Asia Director.