On 17th March 1998, the Asian Human Rights Charter, or the People’s Charter, was launched in Gwangju City. The work for the Charter was the exclusive initiative of the Asian Human Rights Commission, supported by hundreds of organisations and a large number of individuals. All the supporting organisations were named in the back cover of the Charter.
Launching an Asian Charter on Human Rights was a serious endeavour and it had definite aims. The primary aim of the Asian Charter was to initiate a process of dealing with obstacles to promotion of human rights that are unique to the developing countries. As most of the countries in Asia fall under the category of developing countries, it was thought that Asia could be made an example, to try and articulate the problems peculiar to developing countries. This was done with the definite purpose of trying to make the discourse on human rights practically useful to the people living outside developed countries.
Why was this necessary? It was necessary because developed democracies have already achieved a great deal of success in evolving their institutions of justice, namely: parliamentary institutions that acknowledge the rights of man/woman and the duty of the state to protect and promote human rights; the institutions of administration of justice, i.e. the law enforcement agencies, particularly the police, operating under overarching principle of the rule of law and accepting their duty to protect the rights of people; the prosecuting and the judicial institutions, which have developed their own principles to address the protection of human rights within the framework of democracy and the rule of law.
The countries labelled as developing countries are those within which this maturity of institutions has not taken place. The governments in these countries may pay lip service to human rights and even ratify some of the international human rights instruments, like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Social and Economic Rights. However, the entire philosophy of governance and the principles that inform the structures of governance have not absorbed the principles of the rule of law and the obligation to protect the human rights of citizens. Due to this contrast, developed countries have achieved a great degree of success in certain areas, and developing countries, i.e. most Asian countries, have not been able to do so.
A few examples can illustrate this. In developed countries the issue of elimination of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment is accepted in principle, and institutional safeguards have been developed in order to eliminate this practice. In short, practically speaking, for a considerable part, the practice belongs to the past in developed countries.
However, this does not mean that all developed countries have equally achieved such standards. What it only means is that all developed countries have a much higher level of achievement of the implementation of this principle than could be imagined in any of the developing countries.
In developing countries, the use of torture is the cruel daily reality. What we talk of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment is a practice that happens frequently in most police stations in a majority of Asian countries, for various purposes. Anyone who is aware of the realities of these countries would not deny the enormity of this problem.
This same contrast could be made concerning extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances and other forms of deprivation of life without due process of the law. One simple example will illustrate the enormity of the contrast. At this very moment, in the Philippines, the President Mr. Rodrigo Duterte has authorised the extrajudicial execution of those alleged to be involved in drug peddling and other serious crimes. As a result, already around two thousand persons have been killed. Thousands of others have been arrested without any form of a due process. And the President justifies this action, and a sizeable percentage of the population applaud the decision by the President.
Close examination will demonstrate that the reason why such a measure is adopted is because of the poor state of basic justice institutions in the country – the law enforcement, the prosecution, and the judiciary – that have lost the trust of the people. The people do not believe that their justice institutions cannot resolve problems like drug abuse and organised crime within a framework of the rule of law.
This contrast explains why there is a need to address the issues peculiar to the developing countries if human rights have to be of practical value to the people. The word practical value was central in the discussions leading to the enactment of the Asian Charter or the People’s Charter, which was adopted in 1998.
What was meant by practical achievements was that human rights should not be confined to words or mere statements in the law books or UN Conventions. These rights should be achievable through the legal mechanism existing within each country. This means that the law enforcement agencies must be able to carryout their duties without the use of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. The prosecutors should not tolerate the use of torture and ill treatment by anyone, and the judiciary must be able to take firm steps in order to ensure that the provisions of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment are respected in their countries.
We can boldly ask anyone to name a single country among the Asian countries, where these practical results have been achieved. While some jurisdictions have made certain advancements, by and large, most of the Asian countries have not even attempted to ensure the practical realisation of human rights.
Over the nearly 20 years that followed the Charter, the AHRC has pursued the goals of the Charter consistently. The extensive amount of documentation that the AHRC has made available demonstrates, in great detail, the forms of obstacles that exist in every Asian country against the realisation of human rights. The problems of the police, prosecutors, the judiciary and also the Asian governments’ attitude to these problems have all been studied in detail, with the idea of bringing to the attention of the region, as well as to the world that there are serious institutional problems crying out for a solution.
The AHRC did not engage in the promotion of the Asian Charter as if it is a project, which is what many NGOs unfortunately do, by way of so-called human rights work. For us, the Asian Charter was not a project, in the narrow sense of this word. It was a dire need, because today, day in and day out, thousands of persons experience the brute negations of human rights – including the denial of elementary civil and political rights. In the Asian Charter, we have given primacy to civil and political rights, because without civil and political rights, none of the other rights, whether they be economic, environmental, or gender rights, could be practically realised. Without a functioning system for the administration of justice, and without governments providing such institutions of justice for the people no rights could be realised.
Therefore, in any attempt to further develop the Asian Charter, the same questions asked originally should be asked again:
1. Why is there so much resistance by the policing systems in developing countries, which includes most countries of Asia, to respect the basic dignity of a human being?
2. Why do prosecutors, judges, parliamentarians, and everyone involved in governance fail to take these basic issues into consideration?
3. How can we better articulate these problems, and the possible solutions, in a way that the international human rights movement will pay attention to the problems of human rights in the developing countries?
We were firmly of the view in 1998 that the international community has not been able to discharge their duties towards the developing countries. Much of their discourses were based on the premise and misunderstanding that mechanism of protection of rights similar to that which exists in developed countries exists in developing countries. That was a serious misreading which required to be corrected then, and now.
These are the issues that the Asian Charter attempted to address. It is in this light that the subsequent work in the promotion of the Charter has been pursued by the AHRC during the past 20 years.
We hope that those who talk about revisiting the Asian Charter will not ignore and undermine this serious work. Anyone who tries to disturb this groundwork will not be supporting human rights work or the people of these countries. If, for petty ends, and for shortsighted projects, the Asian Charter is revisited, it will be a self-serving task, and not in the best interests of those living in Asian countries.