UN initiative on the rule of law adds new impetus to the struggle for human rights

The international community took an important step this September 24, when the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, urged the Security Council to take up rule of law issues. There is now global understanding that without the rule of law, the lofty ideals of the UN Charter are irrelevant. Without the rule of law, attempts to ensure human security and address world problems such as terrorism are meaningless.

The international community and United Nations are at this time trying to deal with a sense of immense failure. The end of the Cold War has not resulted in a peaceful world. The demise of ideological geopolitics has instead exposed the sheer lawlessness that prevails in most countries.

The Asian Human Rights Commission has since 1995 pointed out that countries throughout Asia lack the fundamentals of the rule of law. Across the region, states enact regulations that enable the arrest and prolonged detention of persons without charge. Fair trial is routinely denied, lawyers are intimidated, and fear is widespread. As a result, most people in Asia live in a state of extreme insecurity and are unable to envisage a way out.

In Cambodia, for instance, the United Nations peace mission failed to rebuild basic judicial and administrative institutions. Ten years on, the country remains in a state of anarchy; crime and abuse of power have in no way been lessened by the efforts of the international community there.

In Indonesia, thirty-three years of dictatorship utterly destroyed all basic institutions for the rule of law. Corrupt soldiers and their appointees took the roles of police and judicial officials. The legal system became a political plaything. Since the dictatorship fell, some genuine attempts to restore basic democratic institutions have failed, as to date there are no functioning institutions to ensure the rule of law.

Even India, which boasts of the judicial system it inherited from the British regime, has failed to achieve the effective rule of law. The November 2000 appointment of the Committee on Reforms of the Criminal Justice System (the Malimath Committee) was an admission of serious systemic failure. However, what the Committee recommended this May was not the strengthening of institutions to ensure the rule of law but the abandoning of even its fundamental principles, including the presumption of innocence and proof beyond reasonable doubt. In fact, throughout all of South Asia public confidence in the institutions of criminal justice collapsed a long time ago. The distrust that took its place has now been aggravated by modern circumstances in which sophisticated crime is a daily threat.

The Asian Human Rights Commission has documented and analyzed these conditions in detail, such as in its 1999 Decline of fair trial in Asia; a bimonthly journal on practical implementation of human rights, article 2; and frequent regional gatherings. From these experiences it deeply appreciates the Secretary General’s recent address and subsequent Security Council deliberations. It is to be hoped that the international community will now work with renewed vigour towards the implementation of rights guaranteed by UN treaties. In particular, all state parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights are obliged to provide the legislative, judicial and administrative means to achieve the rights it stipulates. However, the mechanisms established to monitor implementation to date have been grossly inadequate. These must be significantly reformed if the Secretary General’s vision is to be realized.

For now, civil society must take the main responsibility in overcoming obstacles to the rule of law. Only civil society can build the pressure needed for governments to ensure that policing, prosecution and judicial institutions are independent and well funded. Only civil society can ensure that state officers defying the rule of law will be brought to justice. Therefore, it is incumbent on all civil society organizations in Asia, particularly in the human rights community, to rise to this important call by the Secretary General. There is, after all, good reason for them to do so: ultimately, they are the ones who suffer most when the rule of law is absent. 

— Asian Human Rights Commission – AHRC

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-33-2003
Countries : Asia,