Human rights in Asia: In the flashpoint of crisis and war

May 3, 2024

by Rosario Guzman

We are holding this congress at the most difficult time in the history of humankind. The world is faced with multiple crises that have been brought about by the era of neoliberalism and now threaten the very survival of humanity and the planet. The onslaught of imperialism is relentless and brutal, and the sufferings of the working people are unimaginable.

Imperialism is unleashing an unjust and inhuman war that is nothing short of a genocide. Since just October 7 last year, the US-sponsored Zionist occupation of Palestine has killed more than 37,000 Palestinians, one-half are children, 134 journalists, at least 490 health workers, and at least 244 aid workers. Around 77,250 people are critically wounded. Even those seeking medical treatment and taking refuge in hospitals are being bombed. Before the world, the US-backed Israeli government is denying the Palestinians their basic human rights.

Has the United Nations finally lost its fragile credibility in human rights, as it has only called for a non-binding ceasefire agreement, which the US and other governments have even manifested to veto? In recent weeks coming to this congress, we also watch with bated breath the escalation of tension between Israel and Iran and the specter of a regional conflict in the Middle East.

But should it concern us here in Asia? How far removed is it from our reality that we can choose to ignore? This genocide is not only abrogating everything we know about human rights and international humanitarian laws; it is shaking the very core of our humanity.

It should concern us, because it defines the direction of a world that is gripped by the US hegemonic agenda to address imperialism’s crisis for its own sake and preserve it even at its moribund state. This agenda, as it unfolds before us, is being carried out at all costs, including human lives. We should be alarmed, because the situation is at the point where the human rights defenders themselves are being targeted. But first, we need to have a firm grasp of the crisis that we are in today.

There are more billionaires today

The global economy is facing greater financial instability, which is being addressed by further expansion of capital and greater debt. This does not address the root of the crisis – the inherent crisis of overproduction – but only heightens the degree of financialization of the economy.

The assets of global financial institutions have reached more than 500% of global gross domestic product (GDP) in 2021. Global debt is a record-high ratio of 318% of global GDP. Global trade and investments are slowing, if not flattening out, and the global economy was slowing to 3.0% growth rate in 2023 and further at 2.9% in 2024, well below the average annual growth rate of 3.8% in the last 20 years. Prices of food and energy commodities have soared in what could be the worst inflation since the Second World War.

On one hand, the intensity of the crisis is due to the neoliberal policies that have been imposed upon neocolonies in the last four decades. By the 2008 global financial crisis, it was already clear to everyone especially the hapless citizens that the policies of liberalization, privatization and deregulation were simply being used by rich countries to gain greater control of the world’s labor, natural resources, and markets. It is clear to all of us alive today that neoliberalism has been a cross for poor people to carry.

On the other hand, the intensity of the crisis is due to the habitual debt-driven crisis response by governments in order to save corporations and big business, boost financial profits, and increase fictitious capital. The current debt wave starting in 2009 is the largest and involves the most countries in history. Today we are witnessing global capitalism reaching the limits of its conventional financial policies, and how surely it is going the way of another systemic meltdown before the decade ends.

With such debt levels, neocolonial countries run the risk of defaults. Our governments have implemented austerity measures, including cuts in social services, more consumption taxes for the poor to pay, and tax cuts for corporations and the rich. Our governments are implementing these amid the massive destruction of jobs, collapsed incomes, and worsening poverty.

Global unemployment reached 5.1% in 2023, a seeming improvement from 2022 but only due to the increase in informal work. An additional two million workers will be looking for work in 2024, but there will be no additional jobs to be found.

Global poverty and inequality have only worsened. There are 1.1 billion out of 6.1 billion people (18%) who live in acute multidimensional poverty across 110 countries (as of 2023). About 701 million people, 9% of the world’s population, are living in extreme poverty, or on less than US$2.15 a day (as of September 2023). The poorest 50% of global adult population have only about 0.75% of total global wealth. If these figures are not enough for us to visualize the moribund crisis we are in, imagine this – only 81 billionaires hold more wealth than 50% of the world combined. Some economists argue that a little inequality is beneficial in stimulating growth. But it is problematic when the inequality we are witnessing prevents people from living decent lives and fulfilling their rights. Since 2020, for every dollar the bottom 90% of the global population have earned, billionaires have gained US$1.7 million. Since 2020, billionaire wealth has grown by US$2.7 billion a day. There are more billionaires today than before the pandemic.

“Every billionaire is a policy failure”, some economists say. Prices of assets, particularly financial assets, tend to rise during crises of the global capitalist system, and financial assets are owned by wealthier individuals. Macroeconomic contractions, such as during the pandemic, would normally depress asset prices, but the policy intervention of governments and central banks has favored the rich and resulted instead in rapid increases in asset prices. It is government policy that has increased wealth inequality.

More exploitation of neocolonies

Inter-imperialist rivalries, especially between the US and China, have intensified. The battle is on gaining technological and economic advantage, on developing new products, on sourcing cheaper labor and raw materials, and on capturing new markets. The new strategy is heightened protectionism among imperialist countries.

In particular, the US is providing huge subsidies for its monopoly corporations to compensate for lost profits and to finance relocation and reshoring strategies. This domestic protectionism is not only due to the exhaustion of over-stretched supply chains during the neoliberal era, but also in retaliation to the rapid rise of China, which has long been protectionist.  

The US aggressively started a ‘trade war’ even before the pandemic mainly with China but also with the European Union (EU), Japan and South Korea, with the goal of recovering its technology and industrial capacity. It has escalated a ‘chips war’ where it is imposing a chips embargo on China, specifically sanctioning China’s use of US intellectual property rights.

While trying to weaken China and Russia with restrictions and economic sanctions, the US is reorganizing supply chains away from China and towards more reliable countries that remain loyal to neoliberal policies to provide cheap production locations, cheap labor, and the much-needed raw materials.

More unjust wars

The inevitability of war is inherent in the unresolved global capitalist crisis. Geopolitical tensions and the US wars of aggression and provocation are more ferocious. To weaken and contain the powers of its rivals Russia and China, the US is creating conflict flashpoints primarily across Europe and Asia. There are secondary red flags in the Middle East as well as Africa and Latin America as results of such rivalries, and as the US suppresses countries asserting sovereign rights, like Palestine.

We witnessed how the US-NATO provoked the Russian war in Ukraine and sustained it for 18 months already. Then, the Biden administration brazenly swayed NATO into identifying China as the real and present danger to US national security. The US has devised a mental map in Asia-Pacific, called the Indo-Pacific, which circles yet excludes China, and which is the heart of today’s geopolitics. We are caught smack in the middle of the US-China competition for control.

As part of its Indo-Pacific Strategy, the US is increasing the presence of US military forces from the South China Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Japan undoubtedly has the crucial junior role of rolling out strategic armament and military mobilization in the Orient, even if it is against Japan’s peace constitution. It is going through the largest military build-up since the Second World War. The US, Japan and South Korea held their trilateral summit in August 2023. By December, the three countries had announced the full activation of a real-time warning data sharing mechanism on missiles being positioned by North Korea.

Taiwan, on the other hand, is crucial for US hegemony for two reasons. Taiwan is the most significant producer of semiconductors in the world. It produces 90% of the most advanced microchips that are key to new technology. Secondly, Taiwan is the center of the “first island chain” designed by US military planners in the 1950s, which stretches from the Kurils, the Japanese home islands, and the Ryukyus to the Philippines and Indonesia. The US is fanning Taiwan’s independence sentiments, and Japan is provoking further tension in the Taiwan Strait by pushing for a warfare system that will make the Ryukyu Island Arc the front line of possible wars.

More than Japan, on the other hand, the Philippines is America’s number one, longest-standing ally in the region. The Philippines is the biggest recipient of US aid in Southeast Asia. The Marcos Jr administration has signed with the US bilateral security guidelines to firm up its old colonial military agreements with the US and to ensure that it is ready to come to US defense when China advances.

Meanwhile, the US has strengthened its foothold in the Philippines by establishing nine military bases and facilities. The US military has established its permanent presence by conducting regular military exercises with the Philippine armed forces. The largest number of US troops (12,000) in the history of these military exercises came last year. Around the same number of 11,000 US troops are showing off force and capability as we speak.

The US, Japan and the Philippines trilateral summit took place last month with the agenda of economic and maritime security and defense. It launched the first-ever partnership for global infrastructure and investment corridor in Indo-Pacific, not surprisingly located in Northern Luzon, right off Taiwan and facing the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). In their joint statement, the US is obviously using China’s aggressive behavior –  the militarization and land reclamation taking place in the disputed territories – to have an overkill reaction, that is to launch joint patrols, ensure freedom of navigation, flex military might, position missiles, and build nuclear armament capability.

Defend people’s rights

This is the context of our worsening human rights situation. Domestically we deal with governments that are faithful and subservient to neoliberal economic policies, which have only worsened the decline of our economies, joblessness, cheap labor, labor migration, social neglect, and poverty and inequality, and devastated and plundered our environments. The violations of economic, social and cultural rights are outright and rampant, as our governments impose austerity measures and cut social services and protection in favor of the debt-driven continuation of business and capitalism. Our states get away with it by falsely painting a rosy picture of a globalized world that we are told to embrace.

The social unrest and protests have grown across the region, and the state reaction is to further suppress dissent, use and weaponize existing laws against the citizens, and outright impose more authoritarian rule. We deal with governments that have resorted to constricting the civic space that civil society and activism had created in our historic struggles and to abrogating the freedoms that we had won – of expression, of information, of association, of assembly. Rather than the fallacy of a globalized world, we are seeing the reality of a bleak and very constricted world.

We are dealing with governments that instead of upholding human rights are resorting to threats and harassment, illegal arrest, enforced disappearance and extra-judicial killing of activist farmers, fisherfolk, indigenous people, workers, youth, women, church workers, environmentalists, and human rights defenders.

Some of our colleagues and friends think that only activists are being targeted and they advise us to slow down in our struggles. But the largest number of victims of human rights violations are the ordinary citizens, in their struggles to survive, in the demolition of their homes, in their forced evacuation and dispossession, in the threat and intimidation they get as they vent their difficulties, and in the militarization and bombing of their communities as they are told to leave for the sake of capitalism’s projects. The ordinary citizens are crucial in asserting people’s collective rights, and as human rights activists, we cannot afford to slow down. We are human rights workers, and we have the job to share our stories to the region and the world to build people-to-people solidarity. We still need to see the coming of a more humane, more democratic world. ###

This keynote speech was delivered at the Congress for Asian Human Rights Defenders sponsored by the National Council of Churches in Korea in Seoul, South Korea on 29 April 2024.