”Protect One, Empower a Thousand” is the motto by which the international non-governmental organization Frontline describes the importance of special protection and support for human rights defenders, a message which human rights activists in Bangkok called for Japanese authorities to respect in a protest staged by the Action Network for Migrants on Wednesday.
Around 20 migrant and labor rights activists from Thailand, Burma and Japan joined the protest in front of the Japanese Embassy to express their concerns for Malaysian human rights defender Charles Hector Fernandez and the $3.2 million dollar law suit filed against him by the Japanese company Asahi Kosei (M) SDN BHD for revealing complaints of human rights violations in one of their Malaysian factories early February this year.
The protesters called for Japanese authorities to protect and promote the rights and freedoms of human rights defenders like Mr. Fernandez as set forth in the United Nations Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“Declaration on Human Rights Defenders”).
Mr. Fernandez was sued by the Malaysian subsidiary of the Japanese electronics company Asahi Kosei for publishing complaints of human rights abuses against the company in his blog www.charleshector.blogspot.com on February 8 and 9 this year.
The complaints posted by Mr. Fernandez were published after talking to 31 Burmese migrant workers and included unfair deductions of monthly wages and failure to give paid medical leave at the Asahi Kosei factory in Malaysia.
In his posts, Mr. Fernandez also describes that the alleged response to the workers’ complaints was threat of termination and deportation to Burma as well as deprivation of kitchen utensils and electricity where the workers were residing.
The workers told Mr. Fernandez that they had been forced to sign a new agreement and that the two workers who did not do so, were awaiting deportation back to Burma at Kuala Lumpur International Airport
For posting this information on his blog, Asahi Kosei’s legal representatives T.S Teoh and Partners wrote a Letter of Complaint on behalf the company on February 11, accusing Mr. Fernandez of defamation, denying all the said allegations of human rights violations.
In addition, the letter stated that since the two Burmese workers subjected to the alleged deportation were not under the company’s “direct payroll” Asahi Kosei had reason to deport them and has no direct responsibility for their working situation.
T.S Teoh and Partners concluded that Mr. Fernandez had published an “untrue and defamatory statement” that amounted to “a very serious libel on our clients [Asahi Kosei] and has caused them much distress and embarrassment”.
On February 14, the $3.2 million dollar law suit was filed against Mr. Fernandez and the case is still ongoing with trials at the Malaysian High Court scheduled to take place August 23-26.
The extremely high sum of $3.2 million dollars has causes several international human rights organizations, such as Article 19, to worry about the deterrent effect it may have on other human rights defenders in the future regarding public documentation of human rights violations.
Standing in solidarity with Mr. Fernandez and calling for the right of workers and human rights defenders to report exploitative working conditions and other human rights violations, the protesters at the Japanese Embassy in Bangkok handed over a petition letter to the First Secretary of the Embassy, Mr. Yukihiko Kaneko.
The letter called for Japanese authorities to protect human rights defenders against “any violence, threats, retaliation, adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action” resulting from legitimate exercise of the rights enshrined in the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
It also highlighted the call from the Malaysian Bar on February 21 2011 urging Japanese authorities to look into the human rights violations revealed in Mr. Fernandez’s blog and to act to prevent or stop such kind of violations against migrant workers.
The activists recognize that the Japanese Government is not directly involved in the law suit; however, interpret the ignorance of Japanese authorities as “implied consent and support” for attacks by Japanese companies on human rights defenders exposing exploitative working conditions that threatens company reputation.
In response to the letter, First Secretary Mr. Kaneko says; “I understand your request, but I am afraid the Embassy has no authority to tell Asahi Kosei to stop. Justice is being provided by the Court”. However, he adds; “The state has a duty to protect the people from human rights violations by the company”.
Unfortunately, by this weak and controversial response to the call on Japanese authorities to provide adequate protection for human rights defenders, the Japanese Embassy seems to express no interest in supporting the case of Mr. Fernandez, with the ill-founded “excuse” that they have neither responsibility nor authority to do so.