Heavy-handed protest crackdowns a red flag in Asia’s megacities

Human Rights Outlook 2023

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Civil unrest is on the rise globally, and the risks to businesses operating in the world’s commercial centres are increasing in tandem. But disruption to operations, physical damage to property and the associated rise in insurance costs are only one side of the coin. Our research shows that heavy-handed crackdowns on protestors mean employees face a significant threat of being caught up in state-sanctioned violence at the hands of police and armed forces in more than a third of the world’s megacities.

Our subnational Security Forces and Human Rights Index uses geospatial data to assess the risk of violations perpetrated by state and private security personnel in the world’s urban hubs. Honing in on the 35 cities with a population over 10 million, the index identifies 14 megacities – home to some 241 million people – within its highest risk category, including key commercial locations such as Istanbul, Manila and Mumbai.

The data adds a new lens to our previous research warning of a new era of civil unrest. Indeed, data from our Strikes Riots and Civil Commotion Model shows that unrest will pose a high or extreme risk to the personal safety of protestors, citizens and employees in more than half (19) of the world’s major cities in the year ahead, including the likes of Rio de Janeiro, Lagos and Los Angeles.

“The frequency and magnitude of urban unrest will remain near boiling point throughout 2023 as protracted economic hardship erodes the social fabric and discontent ferments,” says Jimena Blanco, Chief Analyst at Verisk Maplecroft. “In large cities with restricted freedoms, the inevitably harsh response from local security forces will leave businesses and their staff at risk of being caught up in abuses against protestors.”

Asian protestors most exposed to violence

The SFHRI also measures the risk posed to businesses by possible association with human rights violations committed by private security forces, ranging from extrajudicial killings and torture to arbitrary arrests and detentions. This leaves companies servicing government contracts and using security forces to guard assets and properties exposed to potential reputational risks from complicity with their actions.

The data reveals that Asia accounts for nine of the world’s 10 highest-risk megacities. Locked in intractable political and economic turmoil, Pakistan’s Karachi (ranked 1st) and Lahore (2nd) occupy the two highest-risk spots. China – where large-scale demonstrations are a rarity but saw an unusual spike between 2020 and 2022 due to a protracted lockdown and stringent pandemic-related measures - contributes six cities to the list, including Beijing (3rd), Shanghai (4th), Guangzhou (7th), Xi’an (8th), Chongqing (9th), Tianjin (10th). Poll-bound Bangladesh’s Dhaka ranks 5th, while MENA’s Istanbul – where police attacked and arrested hundreds of people at a June 2022 Pride march - comes in at 6th.

Asian cities perform similarly poorly when the index is expanded to include the 573 global cities with a population of over a million. The region accounts for 85 of the 100 highest risk cities in this dataset, with North Korea’s Pyongyang and Myanmar’s Yangon and Mandalay occupying the three highest risk spots.

Global cities exposed to human rights violations

While Asia dominates the top end of the risk rankings, looking at specific regions in isolation reveals that abuses linked to security forces present a challenge to businesses around the globe.

Take sub-Saharan Africa, where 95% of the cities with a population of more than a million are rated high or extreme risk on the index, including major regional business hubs such as Lagos, Cape Town and Nairobi. In MENA this figure stands at 84%, and includes the likes of Riyadh, Ankara and Cairo.

Peru, meanwhile, experienced its worst bout of political violence in decades across December 2022 and January 2023, when at least 60 civilians protesting the resignation of former leader Pedro Castillo were killed by state security forces. While this event occurred after the index was last updated, Lima - the only Peruvian city to feature in the index - has fallen 26 positions in the rankings since 2020, down to 429th highest risk. We expect it’s ranking to plummet in the next edition of the index.

Elsewhere in the Americas, five of the region’s cities fall within the highest risk category of the index: Havana, Cuba; Managua, Nicaragua

European cities safest, but the region isn’t immune

European cities dominate at the lower end of the risk scale, with Dublin, Vienna, Rotterdam, Oslo, Amsterdam, Helsinki, Stockholm and Copenhagen making up the 10 safest urban centres, alongside Auckland and Montevideo. But this isn’t to say that any given region can claim to be risk-free. Indeed, when looking at the 10 cities that have seen the largest increase in risk in their index score since 2020 – indicating a worsening risk trajectory – two are located within Europe.

This includes Warsaw, where the forceful targeting of protestors, particularly those advocating for LGBT and abortion rights, has driven a 56-position downgrade in the index, down to 450th highest risk. This fits into a broader trend seen across Poland, whereby political safeguards have been rolled back under the ruling Law and Justice Party, in turn driving a deterioration in social rights.

It is a similar situation in Belgrade (ranked 435th, down from 498th), where clashes between security forces and protestors – like those seen at September 2022’s EuroPride rally – are becoming increasingly common. Armenia’s Yerevan and Haiti’s Port-au-Prince also make this list, alongside Colombia’s Cartagena, Barranquilla, Medellin, Cali and Bucaramanga.

Social risks a key consideration in the age of unrest

As socioeconomic pressures continue to fuel global unrest, the immediate focus for companies located in the world’s major cities will be the protection of employees, assets and supply chains. But our analysis shows that in doing so, they run the risk of becoming unknowingly complicit in human rights violations at the hands of state security forces. “As the scale of protests intensify in the year ahead, businesses will increasingly rely on local security forces to protect their assets and operations,” adds Blanco. “Screening for social risks and strengthening Voluntary Principles implementation are crucial steps for those looking to avoid the financial, legal and reputational damage that will come if their investments are tied to escalating human rights violations.”


Jess Middleton

Data Journalist

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