ASIA: Centrality of rule of law

On 21 September 2004 Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, addressed the General Assembly emphasising the primacy of the rule of law over all other factors governing global affairs, be they international or domestic in scope. In particular, he observed that:

“We must start from the principle that no one is above the law and no one should be denied its protection. Every nation that proclaims the rule of law at home must respect it abroad and every nation that insists on it abroad must enforce it at home. Yes, the rule of law starts at home. But in too many places it remains elusive. Hatred, corruption, violence and exclusion go without redress. The vulnerable lack effective recourse, and the powerful manipulate laws to retain power and accumulate wealth. At times even the necessary fight against terrorism is allowed to encroach unnecessarily on civil liberties.”

This statement is of utmost importance for Asia. In a recent submission to the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights, the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) named one country in Asia where there is an exceptional collapse of the rule of law. In fact, several countries in Asia face exceptional problems relating to the rule of law. Life in these countries has been a nightmare for citizens, as the state has failed to provide any means for the operation of the rule of law.

In Asia, the collapse of the rule of law is most visible in the poor quality of basic state services provided through the policing, prosecution and judicial arms of government. These arms suffer from insufficient budgetary allocations, the absence of responsible leadership, and oftentimes deliberate efforts to precipitate institutional breakdown.

Of particular immediate concern is the enormous crisis looming over the entire people of Nepal. In Nepal, the rule of law has completely disintegrated. The attempt there to re-establish the absolute monarchy and displace an incipient democracy has resulted in anarchy. None of the basic institutions to guarantee the rule of law are functioning. Insurgents establishing their own arbitrary rule have further exploited the situation, forcing people to submit to the uncertainty of chaos.

The central issue for democracy and human rights in Asia is the rule of law. Unfortunately, in most places in the region it has to date been cruelly dismissed. It is essential that the emphasis the UN Secretary General has placed on it globally be taken up with like-minded seriousness in all countries of Asia. The AHRC urges Asian governments to respond to the Secretary General’s call, and place the rule of law as their top priority. Civil society organisations, especially human rights organisations, should also give the rule of law the central place that it deserves in all discourse on democracy, security and human rights.