TIME North Korea

New Kim on the Block: The Rise of Kim Jong Un’s Little Sister

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gives field guidance to the Sinchon Museum
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gives field guidance to the Sinchon Museum in Pyongyang in this undated photo released by the state-run Korean Central News Agency on Nov. 25, 2014 KCNA/Reuters

But who exactly is Kim Yo Jong?

At last, a North Korea rumor proves true: all year, Korea watchers have been buzzing about the rise of Kim Jong Un’s little sister, Kim Yo Jong. She popped up at her father Kim Jong Il’s December 2011 funeral, then reappeared next to her brother on election day in March of this year. (Yes, North Korea has elections, of sorts.) Experts speculated that her presence at a high-profile political event signaled that she was on the rise within the regime but, as with many things in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), as it is officially called, the theory was just that — until now.

On Thursday, Nov. 26, in an otherwise humdrum account of Kim Jong Un’s visit to a cartoon studio, state media listed Kim Yo Jong as “vice department director” in the powerful Central Committee of the ruling Worker’s Party. In March, when she was pictured beside her brother on polling day, she was identified only as a “senior official.” Though the precise role of a “vice department director” is unclear, that she has an official title suggests a relatively high-profile, and potentially important, role.

So who is Kim Yo Jong? Korea scholars believe she was born in 1987 or 1988, making her 26 or 27 years old, and that she is close to her brother, Kim Jong Un. Their father, former dictator Kim Jong Il, fathered at least seven children by four women, but Kim Jong Un and Kim Yo Jong have the same parentage. They were raised by their mother Ko Young Hui at a hillside estate, says Michael Madden, the founder of North Korea Leadership Watch. Largely restricted to the palace grounds, they were exposed, for the most part, to family members and close friends. “As they say in [Martin Scorsese’s mafia epic] Goodfellas, ‘There were never any outsiders,’” says Madden. “The life of Kim children was hermetically sealed.”

At some point in the mid-1990s, as North Korea starved, Kim Jong Un and his sister Kim Yo Jong were sent to to school in Switzerland. They studied under pseudonyms, presumably to protect their privacy and keep them safe. Remarkably little is known about their time there, Madden says. Upon returning to the DPRK, Kim Yo Jong likely attended university, although the details of that period are still fuzzy. Her stature within the clan started to crystallize at Kim Jong Il’s funeral, when she was spotted walking directly behind heir-apparent Kim Jong Un.

Analysts are still piecing together what, exactly, Kim Yo Jong does. She has been pictured several times in her brother’s company, often on “field guidance tours” (that’s DPRK-speak for the Kim clan looking at things). These appearances have fueled theories that she serves as a sort of events director and aide to her brother, managing his schedule and accompanying him on trips. If that is indeed her role — and again, these things are difficult to pinpoint — it suggests a level of closeness that would give her access to a lot of information. “She may be one of the only people Kim Jong Un trusts completely,” Madden says.

Her presence at Kim Jong Un’s side is rich with symbolism. Her first official public appearance, in March 2014, came not long after the disappearance of her aunt Kim Kyong Hui, who has not been seen since her husband Jang Sung Thaek was executed in late 2013. Before the purge, Kim Kyong Hui was a close adviser to Kim Jong Il, holding key jobs in the ruling party and “protecting her brother’s flank,” according to Ken Gause, a Korea expert at CNA Corp., a Washington, D.C.–based research firm. Kim Il Sung, the country’s revered founding father, also ruled with a sibling — his brother — at his side (until he demoted him).

This new sibling pairing provides an important sense of continuity. Though North Korea is often called a communist state, it is really more of a totalitarian monarchy. North Koreans are taught that Kim Il Sung was a fearsome warrior who, while camped at the base of Mount Paektu with some comrades, crushed a much larger force of Japanese invaders. His son and heir, Kim Jong Il, is said to have been born at the same site, imbued with the same superhuman abilities — heck, he officially shot 11 holes in one in his first-ever game of golf.

Since the deification of the Kim clan is what makes North Korea tick, providing a symbolic link to the past makes sense, even while power passes to the next generation. “The old power elites loyal to Kim Jong Il are being pushed out,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies, in an interview earlier this year. “They will be replaced by new, younger elites who can safeguard the leadership of Kim Jong Un.” So goodbye, Kim Kyong Hui, and hello, Kim Yo Jong.

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TIME Ukraine

U.N. Says Nearly 1,000 Killed in Ukraine Since September Truce

A man of the Don battalion Lugansk People's Republic militia on the firing line on the Seversky Donets River on Nov. 18, 2014.
A man of the Don battalion Lugansk People's Republic militia on the firing line on the Seversky Donets River on Nov. 18, 2014. Krasilnikov Stanislav—Corbis

An average of 13 people every day since Sept. 5

Almost 1,000 people have been killed in Ukraine since a truce was signed in September between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatists controlling parts of the restive eastern region, according to a United Nations report.

An average of 13 people have been killed every day since the Sept. 5 cease-fire was brokered between Ukraine and the rebels, equating to at least 957 deaths up to Tuesday, the U.N. human rights group found in the report. At least 4,317 people have been killed in the conflict since April, including the 298 who died when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down in July, and thousands of others have been injured. Some 466,000 people have been registered as displaced.

MORE: Cease-Fire in Ukraine Fails and Preparations for War Begin

“Respect for the cease-fire has been sporadic at best,” said Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the U.N.’s top human rights official, in a statement. “All parties need to make a far more whole-hearted effort to resolve this protracted crisis peacefully and in line with international human rights laws and standards.”

[AFP]

TIME United Nations

U.N. Push Against North Korea on Rights Moves Ahead

(UNITED NATIONS) — The world’s boldest effort yet to hold North Korea and leader Kim Jong Un accountable for alleged crimes against humanity moved forward Tuesday at the United Nations, where a Pyongyang envoy threatened further nuclear tests.

The U.N. General Assembly’s human rights committee approved a resolution that urges the Security Council to refer the country’s harsh human rights situation to the International Criminal Court. The non-binding resolution now goes to the General Assembly for a vote in the coming weeks. China and Russia, which hold veto power on the council, voted against it.

The resolution was inspired by a groundbreaking U.N. commission of inquiry report early this year that declared North Korea’s human rights situation “exceeds all others in duration, intensity and horror.”

The U.N committee has adopted similar resolutions on the North’s abysmal human rights conditions in the past. But the fact that this year’s resolution includes the new idea that their absolute leader could be targeted by prosecutors has pushed the communist country to make a more furious response as that would pose a setback to its recent efforts to improve ties with the outside world to lure foreign investment and aid and revive the country’s troubled economy. North Korean officials would also view the resolution as a potential embarrassment to their young leader who took power after the death of his dictator father Kim Jong Il in late 2011.

North Korea sent a sharp warning in comments before the vote. Trying to punish it over human rights “is compelling us not to refrain any further from conducting nuclear tests,” said Choe Myong Nam, a foreign ministry adviser for U.N. and human rights issues. His colleagues gave no details on that threat.

Choe also accused the European Union and Japan, the resolution’s co-sponsors, of “subservience and sycophancy” to the United States, and he promised “unpredictable and serious consequences” if the resolution went forward.

The European Union quickly issued a statement welcoming the support of 111 countries in the vote. Nineteen countries voted against, and 55 abstained.

“It is admirable that the member states of the United Nations are acting to protect the people of North Korea when their own government fails to do so,” the head of the commission of inquiry, retired Australian judge Michael Kirby, said in an email, adding that he is confident the Security Council will “act responsibly.”

Human rights groups turned their attention to China and Russia, which could block any Security Council move. “No Security Council country, including China, can deny the horror endured by so many NorthKoreans,” Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement just after the vote. “The time has come for justice.”

North Korea and its allies have argued that a resolution that targets a single country would set a dangerous precedent and that other developing countries could be singled out, too.

The resolution says the commission of inquiry report found grounds to believe that crimes againsthumanity have been committed under policies “established at the highest level of the State for decades.” It calls for targeted sanctions against the people who appear to be most responsible. The commission of inquiry earlier warned Kim Jong Un that could include him.

Cuba proposed an amendment that would have stripped out the tough language on the ICC, but the committee’s member countries voted that down earlier Tuesday.

The mere possibility that its leader could be targeted by prosecutors has put North Korean officials, once dismissive of human rights issues, on edge. In recent weeks, it dangled the possibility of a visit by the U.N. human rights chief, among other attempts at outreach.

“The North Koreans are strongly responding to the U.N. resolution because they think it’s shaking the young leader who’s been trying to consolidate his power since inheriting power only a few years ago,” said Lim Eul Chul, a North Korea expert at South Korea’s Kyungnam University. “They would think their international image has been seriously hit.”

But the North is unlikely to make good on its threat to conduct a nuclear test because the country knows such an action would invite further international condemnation. Also, there is little chance that Russia and China will let the Security Council refer the North’s human rights situation to the ICC in The Hague, analysts said.

“North Korea’s reaction will mostly be verbal. They may threaten nuclear and missile tests, but they probably won’t carry them out,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

In the chamber Tuesday, a North Korean foreign ministry adviser, Kim Ju Song, was witnessed trying to get a U.N. official to eject Shin Dong-Hyuk, a young man who fled North Korea and has since spoken out against the Pyongyang regime.

The commission of inquiry report was based on interviews with dozens of people like Shin who had fled and detailed abuses including starvation and a system of harsh prison camps containing up to 120,000 people.

North Korea has accused people who cooperated with the commission of inquiry of lying, and it produced a video showing Shin’s father in North Korea condemning him.

But Shin, who bowed to Japan’s ambassador in thanks after the vote, said North Korea’s attempt to intimidate him and others backfired. “This was an overwhelming defeat,” he said.

TIME China

U.N. Panel Claims China Tried to Silence Women’s Rights Activists

Some claimed to have been censored by "state agents"

A United Nations committee on women’s rights accused China on Friday of aiming to silence activists who were scheduled to testify about the government’s human rights record at a conference in Geneva.

Some activists claimed to have been censored by “state agents,” according to Reuters, and at least one wasn’t able to travel to Switzerland based on “travel restrictions.”

The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women asked that China “take steps to ensure that in the future no travel restrictions are placed on individuals/human rights defenders,” and also to fight other practices like forced abortions and “infanticide of girls.”

Read more at Reuters

TIME Malaysia

Malaysian Court Legalizes Muslim Cross-Dressing

A judge called the law 'degrading, oppressive and inhumane'

An appeals court in Malaysia Friday struck down a law prohibiting Muslim men from wearing women’s clothing, calling the ban “degrading, oppressive and inhumane.”

“It has the effect of denying the appellants and other sufferers of GID [gender identify disorder] to move freely in public place,” Judge Hishamudin Yunus said of the ban, according to the BBC.

Though Malaysia technically allows for freedom of religion, many Malaysian states mandate Shari’a law for Muslims and maintains a separate court system to enforce it. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights are not readily recognized in the country.

Aston Paiva, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the decision was a significant step forward.

“This will be a precedent. This court binds all other high courts,” he said, according to Agence France-Presse.

[BBC]

TIME Burma

Aung San Suu Kyi’s Silence on Burma’s Human-Rights Abuses Is Appalling

Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi listens as reporter asks her a question during a news conference in Yangon
Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi listens as reporter asks her a question during a news conference at the National League for Democracy party head office in Rangoon on Nov. 5, 2014 Soe Zeya Tun—Reuters

The Nobel laureate's refusal to condemn documented atrocities suggests that political calculation has trumped human rights in her thinking

Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is not happy with the pace of democratic change in Burma, officially now known as Myanmar. On Wednesday, the Nobel Peace Prize winner gave a press conference to denounce the “stalling” reform process.

“The U.S. government has been too optimistic,” she said. “What significant reform steps have been taken in the last 24 months?”

This remark comes days before U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Rangoon, and after talks to reform the nation’s much maligned constitution broke down between Suu Kyi, Burma’s powerful military generals, the current military-backed government and various ethnic leaders.

The constitution bars Suu Kyi from becoming President in next year’s elections because she was married to a British man and has two sons who are foreign citizens. It also guarantees 25% of legislative seats to military appointees. Since more than 75% of lawmakers are required to enact any constitutional change, this gives the generals a de facto parliamentary veto.

Talks aimed at amending these provisions, which were shamelessly included with the sole purpose of barring Suu Kyi from the nation’s highest office, have gone nowhere, and the 69-year-old is attempting one last throw of the dice — appealing to Obama to put pressure on current President Thein Sein, himself a former junta general.

“Democratic reform would not be successful alone with the parliament,” Suu Kyi told assembled media.

Nobody would argue against Burma’s current constitution desperately needing revision, or pretend that reforms haven’t stalled. In fact, when Obama returns to Burma next week, he will find one of his few foreign policy successes in tatters.

“The hope and the optimism we had in 2012, when the country was opening up, has all been squandered,” Aung Zaw, managing editor of the Irrawaddy magazine, tells TIME, lamenting a “backsliding reform process” akin to watching “a train wreck in slow motion.”

Even so, Suu Kyi’s condemnation is curious.

It comes after her steadfast refusal to criticize the military or the government for myriad human-rights abuses. In Burma’s west, for example, more than 100,000 Rohingya Muslims languish in squalid displacement camps, but Suu Kyi repudiates evidence-based allegations of ethnic cleansing by Human Rights Watch and instead calls the crisis an “immigration issue.”

In northernmost Kachin state, civilians face “attacks against civilian populations, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, internal displacement, land confiscation, the recruitment of child soldiers, forced labor and portering.” That’s been documented by the U.N., but Suu Kyi has refused to condemn those atrocities. Her silence is so pointed that 23 local NGOs signed an open letter of protest.

Other causes of concern, like the 10 journalists jailed this year on the flimsiest of pretenses, are brushed aside with platitudinous references to the “rule of law.” Meanwhile, Suu Kyi’s own Rule of Law Parliamentary Committee has achieved “nothing at all,” says Aung Zaw.

“We would’ve liked to have seen Aung San Suu Kyi speak on human-rights issues in a more forthright way,” says Matthew Smith, executive director of the Fortify Rights advocacy group. “She’s issued equivocal statements on serious human-rights violations, in some cases amounting to crimes against humanity.”

In fact, when a high-level delegation from Human Rights Watch came to Burma earlier this year for landmark talks, they met with senior government officials including the President but were snubbed by Suu Kyi.

And that’s not all. Suu Kyi’s baffling behavior goes beyond the area of human rights.

In April 2013, peaceful protesters blockaded a Chinese-owned copper mine near Monywa, around 450 miles north of Rangoon. The police attacked them using white phosphorous, leaving dozens with horrific burns, including traditionally sacrosanct Buddhist monks.

Suu Kyi headed the investigation commission but found that the mine must continue operations or else risk “hurting Burma,” despite the fact that it is desecrating the environment, was set up without scrutiny by the junta, and provides no jobs for local people. In unprecedented scenes, the National League for Democracy (NLD) leader was harangued by furious locals.

Suu Kyi has certainly experienced enormous personal sacrifice. Since returning to her homeland in 1988, she has spent 15 years under house arrest, not even being able to see her beloved husband Michael Aris before he died.

But this is also why her current aloofness is so painful to behold.

“The NLD under her leadership has had big question marks,” says Aung Zaw, “and they misread the whole situation.”

In August 2011, Suu Kyi met Thein Sein for the first time, formally marking her belated return to mainstream politics. The following April, she and 42 NLD colleagues were elected to parliament in a landslide amid jubilant scenes.

The common perception among analysts is that some deal was struck to allow Suu Kyi to stand for election in exchange for muting her criticism of the generals. The presumption was that reforms would take baby steps forward. But, three years on, there has been no progress, and she is partly culpable.

When Suu Kyi finally gave her Nobel acceptance speech in June 2012 — the prize having been originally bestowed in 1991 during a period of house arrest — she said that “receiving the Nobel Peace Prize means personally extending my concerns for democracy and human rights beyond national borders.”

But her present recalcitrance suggests that her own political career may be more important, even if we accept the mitigation that it is for some vague greater good.

“There is no version of pragmatism that would make silence on human-rights atrocities defensible,” says Smith. “These are some of the most serious human-rights violations that can be committed.”

Admittedly, Suu Kyi has always said she is a politician, rather than a human-rights defender. But the truth today is that she is pretty awful at both.

TIME South Korea

South Korea Must End the ‘Rampant Abuse’ of Migrant Farm Workers, Says Amnesty

Rice Harvest In South Korea Ahead Of Import And Export Price Indices
A South Korean farmer is silhouetted as he sits on a sack of rice on Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. SeongJoon Cho—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Far from the glitz and glamour of Seoul, a migrant underclass endures horrific abuse

South Korea’s farming industry is rife with exploitation of migrant labor, according to a report by Amnesty International released Monday, which alleges violence, squalid housing, excessive working hours, no regular rest days and mandatory unpaid overtime.

Moreover, the rights group says that the Seoul government is directly complicit in ongoing abuses through its Employment Permit System (EPS), which involves some 20,000 migrant agricultural workers from poorer nations such as Nepal, Cambodia and Vietnam.

“The exploitation of migrant farm workers in South Korea is a stain on the country,” said Norma Kang Muico, Asia-Pacific migrant-rights researcher at Amnesty International, in a statement, decrying a “shameful system that allows trafficking for exploitation and forced labor to flourish.”

Many migrant laborers build up enormous debts equivalent to two years’ salary in order to be included in the EPS scheme, according to Amnesty’s Bitter Harvest report, which is based on dozens of interviews with migrant workers in 10 different locations across South Korea.

While EPS employers have the right to sack migrants without justification, those employed under the scheme have no right to quit or change jobs without a release form, leaving gaping avenues for exploitation. Migrants who quit without permission are labeled “runaways” and are liable for arrest and summary deportation.

“My boss told me that he will never release me and will use me for three years and not allow me to extend my contract,” a 26-year-old Vietnamese woman, who claimed not to have been paid by her employer, told Amnesty.

Other migrants told of physical abuse. One Cambodian worker described being set upon after he sat down in a field due to a sore back. “The manager became furious and grabbed me by the collar,” he said. “The manager’s younger brother held me by the neck while the manager beat me.”

Many migrants spoke of only being paid for days worked during harvest-time despite signing three-year contracts, leaving them destitute and unable to find alternative employment during the harsh winters.

Amnesty International has urged the South Korean government to ensure reasonable work conditions and allow EPS workers to take up alternative employment while complaints are being investigated, among other reforms.

“If South Koreans were trapped in a similar cycle of abuse, there would rightly be outrage,” adds Muico.

TIME world affairs

A Serial Israel-Basher Shouldn’t Be Judging the Jewish State

Netherlands World Court Croatia Serbia
Members of the Serbian delegation, from left: Sasa Orbadovic, William Schabas, Andreas Zimmermann, Christian Tams and Wayne Jordash await the start of public hearings at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, Netherlands, Monday, March 3, 2014. Jiri Buller—AP

Rabbi Marvin Hier is Dean and Founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The appointment of William Schabas to head the inquiry mocks the U.S.'s judicial standards

The iconic Lady Justice holding evenly balanced scales reflects a truth that national traditions, the law, and, yes, common decency demand that judges should be above reproach. Mocking this baseline ethical standard, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) selected a notorious anti-Israel zealot—Canadian lawyer William Schabas—to head its latest “verdict first, trial later” inquisition against the Jewish state.

According to the U.S. Code governing judicial conduct, a judge should recuse himself or be disqualified if “his impartiality might be reasonably questioned” for “a personal bias or prejudice concerning a party.” That should have led the U.S. to immediately denounce a charade that violates American law and tradition and leaves open the possibility that this flawed international commission’s findings could set legal precedents that not only further demonize our Israeli ally, but could negatively impact Americans defending our nation against terrorists in the future.

Schabas is already on record that when it comes to Israel/Palestine; his primary motivation is “to talk about crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression that have been committed, all of which can be shown to have been perpetrated at various times during the history of the state of Israel.” His fondest hope would be to see Netanyahu “in the dock of an international court.” He’s even called for the prosecution for “war crimes” of Nobel Peace Prize winner, former Israeli President Shimon Peres.

It’s not too late for the U.S. to pull the plug on this travesty. This is why the Simon Wiesenthal Center has urged U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as well as Attorney General Eric Holder to declare the UNHRC’s new kangaroo court against Israel without legal standing in the U.S., before it perpetrates another “legal” lynching that brazenly mocks our basic judicial standards.

Various U.S. administrations have had their hands full with previous UN-based “inquiries.” The UNHRC, renamed from the Human Rights Commission to the Human Rights Council in 2006, is an organization with a sordid history of invoking the cause of “human rights” while suppressing action against the world’s worst human rights abusers. It casts a blind eye to the inhuman rights records of Saddam’s Iraq, the Assads’ Syria, Bashir’s Sudan, the mullahs’ Iran, the Saudis’ male-only theocracy, China’s Tiananmen tank crew, sadists’ targeting of Tibetan society, the geriatric Castro brothers and late Hugo Chavez’s Latin prison farms.

Why didn’t these outrages find the their way to the UNHRC’s podium? For the simple reason that many of the heads these Orwellian regimes served on the UNHRC, sometimes even chairing it.

The UNHRC has served as a virtual good old boys club controlled by the world’s worst human rights abusers—including Iran, Sudan, China, and Cuba. Their main goals: to protect themselves and their allies from the glare of global spotlight on their human rights abuses; and to assure each other of a whitewashed clean bill of health while piling nonstop one-sided resolutions on Israel condemning the Jewish state—not Hamas terrorists—for “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity.” That first effort culminated in the 2009 Goldstone Report, which sought to degrade Israel’s ability to defend its civilians from non-state terrorists onslaughts. This report also set the stage for more international legal challenges to other democracies struggling against the transitional menace of terrorism. Its contents were so odious that Judge Goldstone ultimately repudiated it, implying he had been duped.

Here is an example of the kind of “guidance” from biased NGOs that the UNHRC relies on in drawing up its indictments against Israel. The International Organization for the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (EAFORD) characterized Israel as “the largest open-air prison in the world” and accused it of “loose hordes of marauding gangs of Israeli illegal settlers” so as to launch pogroms against Palestinians. In addition, EAFORD charged “the human organs” of “dead, kidnapped and killed Palestinians…can be a source of immense wealth through illegal trafficking in the world market. Israeli physicians, medical centers, rabbis and the Israeli army may to be involved.”

The Bush Administration belatedly disengaged from the UNHRC, but the Obama Administration has eagerly reengaged with it. To paraphrase what has been said of unsuccessful second marriages, the results of Obama’s “smart diplomacy” in the case of the UNHRC has been a triumph of misplaced hope over experienced evildoers.

The threats of another dose of legal demonization of an embattled Jewish state from UN “justice” are clear. We wrote not only to the U.S. Secretary of State but also to the Attorney General of the United States because the UNHRC’s perverted norms of justice threaten to enter the bloodstream of American society and mores. The resulting damage to our legal and societal norms could corrode the foundations upon which the American experiment was founded: freedom and fairness.

Rabbi Marvin Hier is Dean and Founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Abraham Cooper is Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Australia

Australian Plan to Resettle Refugees in Impoverished Cambodia Sparks Concern

Australia Edges Closer To Cambodia Refugee Transfer Deal
A lotus-flower seller stands underneath the Australian flag along the riverside in Phnom Penh on Aug. 13, 2014. After months of negotiations Australia and Cambodia look set to agree on a deal that will see 1,000 refugees transferred from Australia to Cambodia Omar Havana—Getty Images

Poor and repressive, Cambodia is better known for generating refugees than accepting them, but under a pact with Canberra that will soon change

Australia is to ink a deal on Friday to resettle refugees in Cambodia, despite the Southeast Asian nation’s poverty and appalling rights record.

The forthcoming pact comes just months after Canberra scolded Cambodia at the U.N. for a litany of human-rights abuses including the killing of peaceful protesters, the crushing of political opposition and use of extrajudicial detentions.

The controversial arrangement — thought to be for the initial permanent resettlement of 1,000 people, although there is apparently no upper cap — will be signed in Phnom Penh between Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison and Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng.

“We are world renowned for what we do on refugee resettlement so, who better is placed than Australia to work with a country such as Cambodia to help them develop that capability to do the job as well,” Morrison told Australia’s National Press Club earlier this month.

There are unconfirmed reports that Australia will pay the Cambodian government $40 million to seal the deal; requests to Canberra from TIME for clarification went unanswered.

The UNHCR has raised “strong concerns” as the plan “goes against the whole idea of the international asylum system,” says Bangkok-based spokeswoman Vivian Tan. “We have asked both sides to reconsider, but it looks like it is going ahead.”

Australia’s new Conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott was elected partly on the back of promises to stem the flood of asylum seekers arriving by boat on his nation’s shores.

Fetid and overcrowded immigration detention centers in Papua New Guinea, and the nearby island nation of Nauru, established by the preceding Labour government, are used to house new arrivals.

Of the 1,233 asylum seekers currently detained in Nauru, 250 status determinations have been carried out, leading to 206 declarations of genuine refugee status, according to Human Rights Watch.

“In Nauru, they were identified as refugees and not just irregular migrants trying to find work,” says Tan. “These are people with a demonstrated need for international protection.”

Authoritarian Cambodia is listed as “not free” by advocacy group Freedom House, and, after decades of poverty owing to civil war, genocide and Vietnamese occupation, is better known for generating refugees than accepting them.

Even today, a sizable proportion of Cambodia’s 15 million population is driven to neighboring countries like Thailand in search of work.

According to Ou Virak, president of the Cambodia Center for Human Rights, “Everybody knows we are not well equipped to accept refugees,” pointing to the fact that “no refugees themselves are coming to Cambodia.”

There is an unavoidable catch-22, he adds, as not providing refugees with basic support would be a “gross violation” of their rights, but fulfilling their needs will enrage impoverished Khmers, many of whom struggle to survive. Already, violent attacks against Cambodia’s Vietnamese community, measuring around 5% of the total population, are relatively common.

“They will be in a state of limbo for many years, if they can integrate at all,” says Ou Virak, adding that there are huge questions over how long Canberra will keep providing financial assistance. “Giving food to refugees and sustaining their calorie needs is not enough.”

TIME Malaysia

Shari‘a Law Is Threatening LGBT Rights Across Muslim-Majority Southeast Asia

Protesters raise placards during a prote
Protesters raise placards during a protest outside a mosque in Shah Alam, near Kuala Lumpur, on Nov. 4, 2011. The demonstration was to urge the government to give recognition to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community AFP/Getty Images

Harsh interpretations of Quranic law are being used to justify violence against transgender people in particular, activists say

Growing religious conservatism is threatening LGTB rights in Muslim-majority nations across Southeast Asia, say activists, with a new report claiming serious abuses against Malaysia’s transgender community.

On Thursday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published I’m Scared to Be a Woman: Human Rights Abuses Against Transgender People in Malaysia. The document makes serious allegations of physical and sexual assault committed against transgender people while in official custody.

Malaysia is a 60% Muslim nation where 13 of 15 states have invoked Shari‘a law to ban transvestism among Muslim men; three states also prohibit women “posing as men.” The statues are loosely defined and leave gaping loopholes for abuse, venality and vindictive prosecution, says HRW.

“Malaysian authorities frequently abuse transgender women at the expense of their dignity and in violation of their basic rights,” Boris Dittrich, LGBT-rights advocacy director at HRW, said in a statement. Malaysia’s Religious Department and other state officials have license to do “whatever they like” with transgender women, he added.

The 73-page report includes testimony from 42 transgender women, three transgender men and 21 other medical professionals, legal representatives, activists and outreach workers.

Victoria, a transwoman from Negeri Sembilan state, told HRW she was “completely humiliated” when Religious Department officials photographed her naked while under arrest in 2011. “They were rough,” she said. “One of them squeezed my breasts. One of them took a police baton and poked at my genitals.”

Gender-reassignment surgery was once available in Malaysia, but rising Islamic conservatism led to a ban issued by the National Fatwa Council in 1982. Thus many transgender people undergo medical transitioning in neighboring Thailand, but this leaves them in legal limbo upon their return.

Such problems are not limited to Malaysia. Brunei recently adopted a Shari‘a penal code, with draconian sanctions such as death by stoning for adulterers and flogging or even death for homosexual acts. The code applies the death penalty to both Muslims and non-Muslims in the case of adultery and sodomy, says the International Council of Jurists, despite official claims that non-Muslims will not be subjected to Shari‘a.

In Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, the semiautonomous state of Aceh is also adopting increasingly harsh interpretations of Shari‘a. A draft bylaw announced this week would punish anal sex between men and “the rubbing of body parts between women for stimulation” with 100 lashes. The law would also apply to non-Muslims.

“We have studied the implementation of Shari‘a in countries like Saudi Arabia, Brunei Darussalam and Jordan to draft this law and we are happy with it,” said Ramli Sulaiman, an Aceh lawmaker who led the drafting commission, reports AFP.

Other states in Indonesia only use Shari‘a for civil matters such as divorce and alimony. But since 2006, an increasing number of districts have issued local ordinances based on Shari‘a to govern social conduct. Although many of these are unconstitutional, the central government often fails to decisively strike them down for political reasons, says Freedom House.

According to Faisal Riza, an activist for the Violet Grey LGBT advocacy group, who hails from Aceh but is now based in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, Shari‘a law makes “society feel free to take action or use violence against LGBT people, especially transgender people.”

Discrimination is “getting worse,” he tells TIME, and is exacerbated by “lack of formal education and job access, so some [transgender people] become sex workers.” Possession of condoms is often deemed evidence of prostitution, leaving another window open for abuse and corruption, as well as hampering efforts to tackle the spread of communicable disease, including HIV/AIDS.

In Malaysia, LGBT activists hope an upcoming court case may give them some legal protection. Following the arrest of 16 transgender women at a wedding party in the western coast state of Negeri Sembilan in June, four applicants are claiming that local Shari‘a law is incompatible with national and constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression, freedom of movement and equality. The Putrajaya Court of Appeal is slated to rule on the issue on Nov. 7.

“Malaysia urgently needs to scrap laws that discriminate against transgender people, adhere to international rights standards, and put in place comprehensive non-discrimination legislation that protects them,” said HRW’s Dittrich.

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