Veering away from complicity
Some of the world’s biggest car manufacturers are apparently working with factories associated with hiring Uyghurs coerced into forced labor, prompting Human Rights Watch (HRW) to warn them of their complicity in rights abuses committed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) against the ethnic minority population in the predominantly Muslim Xinjiang region.
On Feb. 1, HRW issued a damning report identifying General Motors, Tesla, BYD, Toyota, and Volkswagen as being at high risk of using aluminum produced with forced labor.
The report found that these car companies often have lax sourcing policies for raw materials like aluminum in their China-based offices, in part because they have “succumbed to [Chinese] government pressure to apply weaker human rights and responsible sourcing standards.”
Many of them do not know the extent of their exposure to forced labor, HRW said. This also contravenes their responsibilities under the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which mandates car manufacturers to identify, prevent, and mitigate forced labor and other human rights abuses in their supply chains.
So “unless and until due diligence is possible in Xinjiang,” HRW said, these companies must also disengage from aluminum suppliers from the region and to clearly map out their supply chains to better reconcile their business goals with their human rights obligations.
“Car companies operating in or sourcing from China should be held to the same human rights and labor standards they apply across all their global operations,” the report said. “Doing business in China should not mean putting human rights protections in reverse.”
Currently, around 10 percent of the world’s aluminum is sourced in Xinjiang, where at least 100,000 Uyghur Muslims are reportedly subjected to mass internment and forced labor under the CCP’s labor transfer programs.
These programs prop up several industries. Last year, a report from Uyghur Rights Monitor, Sheffield Hallam University, and the Uyghur Centre for Democracy and Human Rights found that dozens of brands like H&M and Zara were at high risk of getting source materials from Chinese firms with “significant” ties to Xinjiang.
In 2020, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) published a report, “Uyghurs for Sale,” alleging 82 brands, including Apple, BMW, Huawei, Nike, Samsung, and Sony, worked with factories known to be employing Uyghurs.
Not losing sight
Three years ago, Myanmar saw nearly three decades of democracy building get wiped out overnight, after the junta staged a coup and threw the country’s democratically elected leaders, notably Aung San Suu Kyi, in prison.
With no clear end in sight to the junta’s rule and its gross human rights abuses, the U.N.’s human right chief Volker Turk has urged greater attention to the Southeast Asian country to help bring the conflict brought about by their rule to a swift end.
Noting the unrelenting spate of human rights violations in military-ruled Myanmar, three years on, Turk appealed to the U.N. member states to consider imposing further targeted sanctions on the military to limit their access to weapons, jet fuel, and foreign currency. He said they must also insist on accountability for all the junta’s abuses and call for the release of political prisoners and restoration of civilian rule.
“Amid all of the crises around the world, it is important no one is forgotten. The people of Myanmar have been suffering for too long,” Turk said.
Expert observers note that the junta appears to be weakening after sustaining multiple military setbacks while ethnic armed groups and resistance fighters are gaining ground.
Local media collective Myanmar Peace Monitor estimates that the junta has lost control of at least 35 towns, while a diplomat told Reuters that the military – known as the Tatmadaw – is facing low morale and losing confidence in the leadership of General Min Aung Hlaing.
Even so, Turk said, the junta continues to launch “waves of indiscriminate aerial bombardments and artillery strikes,” especially against civilians, medical facilities, and schools in a clear violation of humanitarian law.
At most risk are minorities like the Rohingya people in the restive Rakhine State, which is routinely targeted by the military in what many say is an ethnic cleansing campaign against the minority Muslim people.
So far, major Western countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and Australia have declared sanctions against individuals and entities implicated in human rights violations in the country.
On the regional home front, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been widely perceived as treating Myanmar with kid gloves, as none of its member-states has imposed sanctions on their conflict-torn neighbor.
Refusing to hand over the reins
As India’s prime minister Narendra Modi continues to wield lawfare to curb press freedom, a digital rights group found a sliver of hope in a recent split verdict on the validity of a 2023 fact-checking amendment to the controversial information technology law allowing state authorities to label content as “fake.”
On Feb. 1, digital rights advocacy group Access Now challenged the Modi government to instead empower its citizens to identify fake news by themselves instead of making itself the final arbiter of facts.
“The government’s desire to control information about itself cannot justify censorship — the government already has ‘the biggest megaphone and the loudest voice’ to defend itself,” said Shruti Narayan, Access Now’s Asia-Pacific policy fellow.
“The amendment will be a major blow to independent and investigative journalism and people’s ability to hold authorities accountable. It is neither necessary nor proportionate, and it must go,” echoed Namrata Maheshwari, another policy counsel for the group.
Their statements follow a Bombay High Court’s split decision on the pleas to strike down certain provisions of the Information Technology Amendment Rules of 2023, which empower the government to establish a fact-checking unit (FCU) to identify any “fake, false or misleading” information on social media platforms.
Justice Gautam Patel, who voted to strike it down, argued that the amendment was “nothing but censorship” and questioned how the state could have an “absolutist determination of both content and expression as ‘the truth’ and to compel a particular form of content and expression.”
Last year, rights organizations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and media groups Editors’ Guild of India and Media Nama have also sounded the alarm against the amendment, and warned that it could “censor journalism and severely jeopardise freedom of expression.”
The fact-checking amendment is the latest measure being pushed by the world’s largest democracy with significant impacts on press freedom, alongside the recent overhaul of India’s colonial-era telecommunications act and the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.
Reporters Without Borders’ South Asia head Celia Mercier calls these pieces of legislation “liberticidal laws to crack down on independent journalism,” and are in large part the reason why the South Asian country has continued to slide down on press freedom indices.
Last year, India ranked 161st out of 180 countries, surprisingly falling a notch below Laos, an openly communist state.
A frayed history
Japan’s decision to remove a two-decade-old memorial dedicated to Korea’s wartime forced labor in northwestern Gunma prefecture has cast a new shadow over relations between the two East Asian countries, which continue to struggle to reconcile over their historical issues.
Not surprisingly, Seoul’s seemingly passive response to Japan’s move drew strong reactions from concerned sectors in South Korea, as they urged the Yoon Suk-yeol administration to issue a stronger protest against its removal.
“(T)he ministry should have at least shown a robust response, expressing strong regret over the prefectural government’s decision,” Yang Ki-ho, professor of Japanese studies at Sungkonghoe University and former consul-general of Korea in Kobe, was quoted by The Korea Times as saying.
The South Korean government should “lodge strong protests, if it were not aligning with Japan’s attempt to erase the history of forced labor,” echoed Yoo Gi-hong of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK).
At the same time, rights advocates also called on Japan to rescind its decision and acknowledge its role in wartime crimes, particularly forced labor and sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II.
In its Jan. 30 editorial, the Asahi Shimbun – considered Japan’s paper of record – argued that the Gunma prefecture should recall its “outrageous action, which defies reason and understanding … [and] could effectively provide support to historical revisionism.
Likewise, Yang feared that Seoul’s “tepid response” would embolden Japan to make other moves that could be seen as whitewashing its atrocities committed during WWII.
Last year alone, Japan rejected a Seoul court ruling requiring it to compensate 16 former comfort women.
Japan, the lone Asian representative in the elite Group of Seven (G7) countries, has also been lobbying for the inclusion of the Sado mines, its largest silver mines, on the UNESCO World Heritage List. This, despite historical records including victims’ accounts attesting that over 1,000 Koreans were forced into labor there during WWII.
These laborers were among those represented by the Gunma memorial, which was erected in 2004 and ordered removed by the prefecture in 2014 for allegedly violating the conditions of its erection.
It’s the latest blow to the families of wartime forced laborers, who just last year repugned South Korea’s decision to compensate its own citizens who were forced to work in Japanese factories, demanding that Japan pay the victims instead.