On the 10th of December Human Rights Day is celebrated the world over. It reminds us of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which symbolized the start of an era based on a respect for human dignity and on the obligations of states to protect human rights. But what kind of reminder is this day for people living in the Asian region? How many of them have seen improvements that would allow them to participate in such a celebration joyfully?
For the majority of people in Asia human rights remain a promise and a dream; they are not protected to the extent that they are thought worth celebrating. Instead on this day, once again, people will air their grievances louder; they will remember the many who have unnecessarily died because of violence, or because of neglect on the part of their government to provide them with economic, social and cultural development necessary to sustain them.
Threats to the Right to Life
When considering widespread poverty, extreme unemployment and the lack of basic resources available for people to live simply and decently in Asia, these grievances will be largely related to the right to life. It is this right that remains most under threat, in the area of civil and political rights, as well as in economic, social and cultural life across the continent. The more vulnerable sections of society, such as women, children and the elderly, will have the most to say about this. For most of them, Human Rights Day is celebrated under grim conditions.
States are yet to demonstrate that they pay anything beyond lip service to the protection of human rights, and remain preoccupied with the protection of privileges for a particular minority. They are proving slow and often unwilling to open to the democratisation of their societies in a manner that would give people access to basic rights. Instead the typical Asian state still strongly protects the rights of privileged sections of societies to engage in exploitation. Various ideological justifications and pretexts are made, and often they are overtly nationalist. Nationalism has not yet come to mean the protection of all those living in a particular country, but rather perversely represents certain stronger sections of society.
The Massacre in Maguindanao
One terrible reminder comes from a recent massacre in Maguindanao, in the Philippines, in which over fifty seven innocent persons were executed, including thirty journalists, while on their way to assert their basic democratic rights. It brings to mind many similar killings that have taken place throughout Asia during this year, perpetrated by state actors or other powerful sections, often to suppress more powerless sections of their societies. Besides such mass murders, we receive constant reports of extra-judicial killings, which appear to be used by governments as a way to deal with problematic individuals. Governments in Asia have failed to make a clear legal stand against extra-judicial killings, with punishments rarely resulting from the use of the rule of law mechanism and the operation of due process, both of which continue to be severely undermined continent-wide.
Failures in Criminal Justice Systems
A major reason that violations continue, is the failure of the Asian states to develop their criminal justice systems in terms of universally accepted norms and standards, and on the basis of human rights and criminal justice principles. Instead they rely on underdeveloped systems of policing, which themselves rely heavily on the use of brute force to control populations, rather than the rule of law.
This failure to develop credible systems of policing is the greatest visible sign of states’ neglect of civil and political rights. Torture continues to be a common part of the investigation process and its legitimisation paves the way for other violations and the abuse of criminal justice itself, extortion in particular. Police officers enjoy enormous, unchecked powers, and these are often used to illegally enrich themselves.
A police station here is often simply used as a form of domination by the elites and upper caste persons, its staff are symbols of caste and not of law. Internal processes within the policing system are overly controlled and rarely democratic. A critique of the criminal justice systems from this point of view is essential if societies are to be democratised and entrenched inequality within society is to be handled.
By not reforming bad policing systems, no credible mechanisms for complaint are being developed; complaints cannot easily be filed against anyone in the police force and the problem self perpetuates. Those who are brave enough to complain against the police are often exposed to various abuses, sometimes threatened with death. Witnesses are commonly killed. Thus there is a systemic, sanctioned silencing. This is as helpful for authoritarian governments as it is for powerful individuals looking to exploit the poor; arbitrary forms of power are commonly maintained through the misuse of police both during election times and throughout the year. Opposition political parties across the continent claim to have been suppressed in the localities by police.
Thus in countries such as China, India, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia, the improvement of human rights must be measured by the extent to which the policing systems are democratised. As long as policing systems remain as they are, the likelihood of any improvement in human rights or democratization will remain scant.
Systems of extreme caste-based discrimination are still powerful within the Asian region, particularly in South Asia, where they maintain tight cycles of impoverishment. While some forms of modernisation have made certain inroads, the undermining of this system here is still in its initial stages. Economic power is still very much in the hands of those who control power systems that utilise caste-based discrimination. As a result free expression and free organisation among the lower castes is systematically obstructed by traditional elites. This sector uses national resources for its benefit only. The empowerment of lower caste communities depends upon the unjust practices that have been built into the very criminal justice systems, to the point of being ingrained. Justice is currently very often out of reach of the poor.
Discrimination against women, particularly those who are underprivileged, remains deeply entrenched in the very processes of criminal justice in Asia. A woman who wants to assert her right to equality finds little protection within the criminal justice system of her country, where judges remain biased and laws traditionally patriarchal. A woman’s access to the rule of law is also often blocked by the police force, where gender sensitisation has yet to take place and where crimes against women are commonly committed.
Traditional forms of community justice also prevail in many parts of the region, which mostly involve the assertion of the will of the wealthy sectors of society. This process controls the rights of women to their property in particular; the roots of most honour killings dealt with by the AHRC lie in land-grabs. This lack of economic empowerment and legal access leaves women with little room to fight social inequality, and the cycle perpetuates.
Starvation, Malnutrition and Hunger
A formidable obstacle for participatory democracy in many Asian states is the prevalence of starvation, malnutrition and hunger. In India, the largest democracy in the world, an estimated 27% of its population lives below the poverty line, unable to earn more than 1USD a day. An equally alarming percentage of people live in similar conditions in Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Philippines and Burma. Those worst affected by hunger are women and the children, and in particular the girl child. Malnutrition adversely affects a child’s prospects to learn and poverty prevents parents from sending their children to school, thereby ruining a generation’s options to participate in whatever democratic process is available in their country.
Nevertheless little is being done by the governments in these states to ameliorate the living conditions of the poorest of the poor. The AHRC has reported many cases of acute malnourishment and hunger this year, particularly from India, where it has most access to this information. Trusted sources from Burma suggest that the condition is even worse there, where acute food shortages are not due to natural disasters, but rather the disastrous failure of the state to manage its resources for the good of its people.
Asia harbours many of the world’s corruption dens, where the practice hampers the meaningful functioning of justice institutions and demoralises the masses. It affects people’s motivation to push for reforms wherever such space is available.
Corruption has contributed to economic polarisation in the region, and adversely affects the majority, yet there have been not active steps to tackle it, except for in a few selected states. Backslides have been observed, as in South Korea, where the state has increasingly resorted to the use of force to crackdown on popular descent against corruption and highhandedness in the government.
Inadequate Funding for the Administration of Justice
One of the major strategies employed by Asian governments to prevent the improvement of human rights systems and democratisation, is to not adequately fund the institutions that administrate justice. Investigating and prosecutorial systems are extremely underfunded across the region. This administratively prevents their independence. Underfunded police often do not have the personal or institutional resources to deal with their tasks, and underfunded prosecution systems do not have the qualified or competent personnel needed for matters of law and justice. By underfunding the judiciary, governments can be sure that judicial functions will be stunted, and this allows the executive to exert easy control. The heavy control of justice institutions is a strong characteristic of the Asian nation.
The Responsibility of the International Human Rights Community
These are the factors that allow human rights violations to flourish in the Asian environment. The international community has still not adequately grasped the nature of the problems of rights implementation in this region. It has instead wasted much of its resources on promoting, for example, national human rights commissions, which are primarily ombudsman institutions for countries that do not yet have the institutional foundations to administrate justice. Yet the former cannot function without the latter. The emphasis must lie in improving policing, prosecutorial systems and judicial systems. The challenge for the international community is to review its old strategies for human rights development in countries where the basic rule of law and due process is seriously flawed.