Collapsed rule of law buries the foundations of human rights: The AHRC International Human Rights Day Statement 2004

As we commemorate International Human Rights Day on December 10, 2004, the state of human rights in most countries of Asia is very bleak. Without serious efforts to defend these principles, life in a great many parts of the region will rapidly grow dramatically worse. The major threat to human rights in the region has been the breakdown in the rule of law. As a result, most people in Asia daily live in instability and fear, lacking basic security for a normal existence. The institutions for the proper administration of justice—the police, prosecution agencies and judiciary—are in most places malfunctioning and in some places have virtually collapsed. Parliaments lack the requisite willpower, strength and orientation to resist the pressures pulling societies apart. The executive rarely takes effective measures to implement the rule of law, and more frequently seeks to undermine it by perverting the legal system to favour new forms of authoritarianism. The absence of the rule of law permits the exercise of absolute power. The majority of people suffer; a handful obtains extraordinary benefits. State security forces enjoy virtual impunity, and engage in extreme forms of cruelty.

This last year saw many attacks on human rights victims and defenders who dared to make complaints and seek justice. Some were harassed and intimidated; some were killed. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has documented such cases from Indonesia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Burma, the Philippines, Bhutan and Singapore. A great many of them come from the poorer sections of society.

Another major problem still prevalent in many places of Asia is enforced disappearance. Last year the largest number of disappearances in Asia occurred in Nepal. Over 1400 persons are known to have disappeared there, and a much larger number are believed to have suffered the same fate, but without any records attesting to their loss. The growing number of reported disappearances in the south of Thailand is also cause for deep concern.

The shadow of custodial torture also remains cast across virtually all countries in Asia. Although police stations and military barracks in most places double as torture chambers, despite growing efforts to eliminate the practice state authorities have restricted themselves to the making of mere gestures. In many places, there appears to be either an overt or tacit agreement among authorities that torture is essential to maintain law and order. Some states have suggested that law enforcement officers should have the power to engage in ‘controlled torture’ and senior officials have expressed personal support for the use of torture. The gap between the commitments made by Asian states internationally and the reality in most countries is growing ever wider.

The greatest obstacle to the protection and promotion of human rights throughout the region is the police. In most countries of Asia, the police are perceived not as law-enforcers but as law-breakers. Police impede respect for human rights, and precipitate breakdowns in law and order. They forge close links with criminals. Attempts at building civilian oversight of police fail because of institutional malfunction, lack of accountability, and the enduring bonds with criminals. As a consequence, in most parts of Asia crime is on the rise. The authorities spuriously retort that increased crime is due to attempts by human rights groups and others to resist and eliminate torture and concomitant abuses. The same conclusion is reached: in some countries attempts to eliminate torture contradict state objectives.

Against this trend is the enormous and growing determination of people in Asia to assert their rights. This popular upsurge in almost all countries is greater than at any time in the past. New technologies with which to communicate have contributed enormously. Local and regional non-governmental organisations have also played a pivotal role. The conflict between states trying to suppress rights and people trying to assert them is giving rise to harsher and more violent state reactions. As a result, the incidence of rights abuse in Asia is growing exponentially. Bold efforts are needed both internally and internationally to counteract this trend if large-scale atrocities are not to grow out of all proportion. The international community is particularly beholden to play a greater role in supporting the burgeoning human rights movement in Asia, as up until the present its response has been very poor.

In this statement, the AHRC wishes to comment on just a few of the countries and incidents of the region with which it has been concerned during the past year. We concentrate our attention on two parts of the region: the south and southeast. We begin with South Asia, and discuss Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan. We then turn to Southeast Asia, with commentary on Thailand, Indonesia, Burma, Malaysia and Singapore.


Nepal today faces an unparalleled human rights catastrophe. Although the country has ratified many international conventions and their optional protocols, it has failed miserably in holding even to the spirit of these instruments. Instead, it is today competing for the record number of enforced disappearances in modern Asian history. Disappearances are a daily event in Nepal. Its National Human Rights Commission alone has recorded some 1400 cases, most involving the military. Those disappeared seldom return: most are killed, their bodies never returned to their relatives, who have no means to complain or protest. They live in total uncertainty, waiting and clinging to the last bit of hope for those who have disappeared. The few who do survive find it hard to live a normal life after what they have experienced.

The government of Nepal is in chaos. It is clearly unable to ensure the security of its people. During 2004, the AHRC raised its voice on a number of occasions when government security forces resorted to unnecessary violence as a means of control. With government consent, these agencies have arbitrarily arrested, tortured, extrajudicially killed and forcibly disappeared thousands upon thousands of citizens: most have fallen victim to units under the Joint Command of the Royal Nepal Army, and most are ordinary people innocent of any crimes. The government also knows that the security forces have targeted journalists and human rights defenders on the pretext of maintaining law and order. Both the government security forces and militias blatantly use force with the same degree of vigour and brutality, in total disregard to all human rights principles and standards. The government, by remaining mute in the face of these atrocities, has grossly violated its constitutional and international responsibilities.

The government has gone so far as to help the security forces to conceal grave human rights violations, particularly disappearances. Even the highest court of the country and the National Human Rights Commission have been directed not to discuss violations committed by the military, thereby denying any possibility of relief for the victims. And with the police and military refusing to admit that large-scale disappearances are occurring, domestic law-enforcement agencies, including the courts, are unable to do anything. Local police often refuse to register complaints of disappearance, and the Supreme Court is reluctant to intervene on grounds of lack of evidence and authority. Cases filed before it are rejected summarily, causing those who had once dared to lodge complaints to no longer bother. Civilians cannot get access to military courts, and these are anyhow far below accepted standards of impartiality. All government organs responsible for disappearances enjoy absolute impunity. In short, there is zero rule of law in Nepal. The result is overwhelming fear, helplessness and silence. The situation in the Maoist-controlled regions is equally bad since virtually no civilian law enforcement agencies are operative there at all.

With the expiry of the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Punishment and Control) Act – 2058 last October 12, the government of Nepal has introduced a more severe version of the same law in its stead: the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Control and Punishment) Ordinance – 2061. This legislation clearly signals that the government has surrendered its authority to the military, and given it a green light to continue with arbitrary detentions, torture, disappearances, and extrajudicial and summary executions. One of the reasons for this weak position is the question mark looming over the constitutionality of the existing government itself after the democratically-elected government was dismissed and a new one appointed according to the king’s fancy. This repressive legislation effectively rules out any possibility for genuine dialogue to end the civil conflict in Nepal, and with it, any chance that the disappearances, killings and torture will end soon. The mistaken belief that unrestrained use of force will resolve the country’s political and security problems, prevalent at the highest levels of government, is stimulating the ongoing systematic and widespread human rights violations and crimes against humanity being committed by the security forces. The government must instead adopt a realistic and sincere approach towards a solution; otherwise, the blind, unnecessary and blatant violence coupled with total impunity of state security officials will lead the country into a disaster from which it will take decades to recover.

Local groups and international agencies must also play a more thoughtful role in negotiating a way through the conflict. At present, the absence of deliberate and concerted international effort to bring about an end to the impasse is resulting in great loss of life and immense suffering; far worse can be expected if nothing is done soon. International agencies must also reconsider how they engage in partnerships and make contributions at the local level in Nepal. Despite the prevailing chaos, the country is a hive of non-governmental organisations engaged in everything from natural disaster management to forums for a democratic movement. However, aside some remarkable exceptions most are just busy cashing-in on a worsening crisis, and the pursuit of their own self-interest while the society as a whole stares into the abyss. More thought-out approaches by international agencies may do something to rectify this unfortunate state of affairs, and perhaps even help to pull the country back from the brink.


This November 12, Abhijnan Basu, aged 40 years, was doused with diesel fuel and set on fire by officers of the Presidency Jail in Kolkata. The reason: he had dared to protest the quality and quantity of food the prisoners were being provided. On the same day, in another part of West Bengal, a reporter with a leading daily, Anal Abedin, was attacked at his house around midnight. His wife and their two-year-old daughter were also assaulted. The reason: he had been writing about the misdeeds of a former municipal chairman, who led the attack. Abedin called the police as his house was surrounded, and was told to call later. By the time the police arrived, after another complaint and protest by Abedin’s colleagues, the assailants had completed their handy work. The chief of police stated that they were inquiring into the incident and would take ‘necessary actions’: the same old bluff, of no news to any Indian citizen.

These incidents speak to just how inadequate and ineffective the administration of justice has become in India. The judiciary wrings its hands over the faltering rule of law, but nothing more is done to bring about change. It establishes guidelines for the police, prosecution and executive, but not even their minimum standards are upheld. Anyone unfortunate enough to end up in custody or in conflict with a powerful person is at the mercy of criminals in uniform and their accomplices.

The Indian judicial system is inaccessible to the ordinary citizen. The country is setting records for delays in court procedures: cases typically last one or two decades. There are many reasons for delays, but among them is the failure of the state to commit resources to the overburdened system, particularly by way of modern technologies that could be used to speed daily transactions. Unfortunately, the only money being used to oil the wheels at present is from private sources. From the lowest clerk to the court’s presiding officer, all are corrupted. The actual litigation expense for any case, even at the lowest court, is also far beyond what an ordinary citizen can afford. For those who can finance the first stages of a case, if it goes to a higher court it may soon become a financial nightmare. Victims of human rights violations, such as those tormented by custodial torture, stand little chance of obtaining redress when facing these obstacles.

Money also works miracles for persons seeking to get appointed as public prosecutors in India, as do political and family connections, with caste and social status playing an important role. The consequence is that politicization, corruption, inefficiency and lethargy are the hallmarks of the prosecutor’s office. The pitiable standard of both the agency and its officers again negate the chances for any victim of rights abuse to find redress through the courts.

Even greater hazards await the average person approaching the police: to lodge a grievance about anything in India literally necessitates payment to an entire station. And if ever a person dares to complain against a police officer, she can be sure that the complaint will never be properly investigated, as the same police will themselves be the ones to take up the case. The complainant has only two courses of action: to approach the same police station where the offence has occurred, or the local court. In either case, the chances that an impartial inquiry will follow are all but none. The sight of police who have committed human rights abuses investigating themselves is no laughing matter for the victims; rather, it causes utter dismay. The failure of national and state-level human rights commissions to perform according to their mandates and enter the fray on the side of the aggrieved only increases their misery and mistrust of state authorities.

The persons who come off worst are those belonging to the lowest castes and other most marginalised social groups. As the rule of law has ebbed away, a tide of communal violence and intolerance has swept India. Invariably, such violence are attempts against those persons who have been structurally excluded from most parts of society, notably the 300 million or so Dalits, when they try to assert their rights and rise above their socially-prescribed status. Similarly, religious intolerance has been directed particularly towards Muslim communities. This violence is often manifested in state actions ostensibly undertaken with legal backing. It includes forced eviction and denial of access to state facilities and resources. It is also evidenced in the lack of efforts to alleviate extreme poverty, which is itself often brought about directly by the actions of government agents. Despite the fact that India has consistently declared a food surplus over the last few years, thousands from Dalit and tribal communities are starving to death, and millions suffer from malnutrition.

One example that illustrates how hunger is manifest through the negative actions of state authorities directed against marginalised groups, beginning in 2003 and continuing to the present, is in the 7000 persons evicted from an area of land under the control of the municipal authorities known as Bellilious Park, in greater Kolkata. The eviction occurred in February 2003, and was tacitly sanctioned by the courts. During the eviction the affected persons were physically assaulted and had all their meagre possessions either destroyed or looted by the police and other government agents. Since then, at least six persons are known to have died of starvation or related illnesses. Large numbers of the survivors are now living in subhuman conditions near a municipal dumping ground and a train line, while most of the land from which they were vacated stands idle. The authorities sheer denial of their humanity stems primarily from the fact that they are all Dalits. Despite strong efforts locally and from abroad to have some kind of commitment towards their rehabilitation and compensation for losses suffered, nothing has been forthcoming from government agencies at any level. Even humanitarian organisations such as the Indian Red Cross Society have not deigned to lift a finger in support. Under the current circumstances, the inaction of these agencies is tantamount to a death sentence for more persons in the community who will die of illness associated with a lack of nutritious food, clean water and health care, all brought on by callous and arbitrary actions of local authorities.

Internationally, India is attempting to secure a place for itself as a global power, but in human rights terms its standing has no credibility. Abroad, the government time and time again defends its ‘well established’ legal system and human rights record, yet it has refrained from ratifying many important international treaties on the ground that the existing laws are already capable of safeguarding the citizen from human rights violations. Clearly, this is nothing more than a cruel joke. The constitutional promises of a democratic, socialist republic are bound in leather and stuck on shelves. They have no relevance to the persons passing by outside. Were India in fact to ratify the UN Convention against Torture and implement it domestically, it could spur long-overdue changes by securing the responsibility of the state to establish a proper policing system accountable for its acts and deeds under both domestic and international law. This step might actually have an effect on the dispensation of justice in India such that the persons whose rights it today impinges upon may start to perceive it differently, and even feel able to exercise the rights they have so long been promised but continue to be denied.

Sri Lanka

This November, a senior high court judge in Colombo, Justice Sarath Ambepitiya, was killed in broad daylight. Two days later, Gerald M Perera was similarly shot in order to prevent him from giving evidence against several police officers facing trial on charges of torturing him; he subsequently died in hospital. The two killings have awoken many in Sri Lanka to the impending disaster that the country is today facing.

The AHRC has time and again stressed that the exceptional collapse of the rule of law in Sri Lanka is deserving of immediate and special attention by national and international bodies, including the special mechanisms of the United Nations. There are now growing demands from all parts of society within Sri Lanka itself for thorough scrutiny of the present situation. Pressing questions are being asked about the institutions of justice—the police, prosecution and judiciary—and also the political leadership’s responsibilities. There is in fact general consensus that the rule of law has undergone an exceptional collapse.

However, the complete breakdown of law and order is being met largely by hysterical cries. The president has gone on record as stating that the police and judiciary are corrupt; similar statements have been made in the national assembly. However, these have not been followed by any serious attempt to examine the situation by way of a high-level commission or parliamentary select committee. Nor are there any proposals and recommendations to address the problems. One response of the government to the killings has been irrational and counterproductive: it plans to reintroduce the death penalty, thus further removing Sri Lanka from the norms of civilised societies.

To the extent that other steps have now been taken, they have fallen far short of what is needed. Following the judge’s death, the government appointed a select committee to look into ways to prevent further increases in crime. Though necessary, the mandate and scope of the select committee does not allow for adequate examination of what is wrong and what must be done. One area outside of its purview is the complete absence of a witness protection scheme in Sri Lanka, resulting in many witnesses withdrawing their complaints or changing their statements and evidence under threat of dire consequences. As handguns and hired killers are increasingly readily available, the threats are usually all too real. Not surprisingly, few people dare to pursue remedies for human rights violations when faced with these circumstances. Thus a comprehensive and effective witness protection programme is a radical requirement to restore confidence in the system of justice in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan judges are themselves not safe to discharge their duties in accordance with the law, and in fact are all but encouraged to disregard it. When a judge cannot go about the day-to-day business of the court without fearing an assassin’s bullet on arriving home, it is difficult to grasp how much worse the plight of the ordinary citizen could be. Unwarranted and illegal interference in judicial functions is a key reason for the collapsed rule of law in Sri Lanka. For example, a magistrate at the Wellewaya court was suspended from his post for issuing a warrant against a senior police officer. In an unprecedented move the warrant was recalled by the Judicial Service Commission, which has no judicial powers. Despite heavy public criticism the magistrate is still interdicted. By contrast, inquiries into judges facing accusations of misconduct can take a very long time. Such delays have seriously damaged the image of the judiciary. The chief justice has himself been under severe public scrutiny in the past year. The inability of the political establishment to secure an impeachment motion against him has created considerable public distrust.

During the past year, the National Police Commission attempted to initiate several limited measures to exercise disciplinary control over the police as required by the 17th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka. In recognition of widespread and systematic reporting of torture cases in police stations, it withdrew disciplinary control over officers below the rank of inspector from the Inspector General of Police. It also initiated action to suspend officers facing criminal charges before the court who were continuing in their posts, though forbidden by law. The commission also tried to develop some units to entertain public complaints and conduct inquiries; some officers have been recruited for this purpose. However, it is constitutionally obliged to establish a public complaint procedure to entertain complaints against police and redress their human rights violations. No adequate steps have been taken towards this end. The commission also came under heavy pressure over the lack of cooperation from some sections of the police and politicians who have been resisting serious attempts to impose discipline on the police force. The aim of this pressure is to paralyse and deny the effective functioning of the commission. Another means by which this same aim is being achieved is by denying the commission the necessary resources with which to function. Clearly, if a solution is to be found for the deep crisis in law enforcement in Sri Lanka, the National Police Commission requires more resources to enable it to perform its role as constitutionally mandated.

Although the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka adopted a three-year work plan and declared a ‘zero tolerance’ policy on torture in 2004, it was beset with huge internal problems that have prevented it from making progress. One of the most glaring problems has been the limited competence among staff, including some holding senior posts. An inquiry found that the area coordinator in Kandy had given a completely false report against a torture victim, and held that despite his long service the coordinator lacked basic training by which to conduct inquiries, and that in this particular case he was biased toward the police. He was subsequently transferred, causing a staff union led by the director of education at the commission to stage a strike in protest. Not only such internal conflicts, but also direct conflicts with the police have impeded the functioning of the commission and limited its efficacy in conducting inquiries into alleged cases of human rights violations. In one instance, two of its officers were harassed and assaulted when they tried to inspect police premises, looking for victims of torture. Under pressure from his colleagues, the Inspector General of Police issued a circular that human rights officers would be required to get prior approval of an assistant superintendent of police before entering police quarters. The effect of this order is to give police engaging in torture prior warning of investigations, allowing them the time needed to destroy or conceal evidence, and even remove the victims to somewhere else.

The AHRC issued nearly 70 new urgent appeals on torture in Sri Lanka during 2004. It also updated many other appeals. In most of these cases, inquiries have not been completed by the government agencies. Even when inquiries are over, the filing of cases before courts and other means for redress take a very long time, perhaps several years. In the meantime, victims are exposed to very serious danger. In several instances reported this year, torture victims were tortured for a second time in order to force them to withdraw their complaints. In one instance there was an attempted murder, in addition to the killing of Gerald Perera. Though the attorney general caused some cases to be investigated and criminal indictments filed, these steps only expose the victims to greater risks, since no government authority has taken any responsibility to protect these persons. This again leads us to the conclusion that an effective witness protection scheme must be implemented in Sri Lanka without delay.


The continued dominance of the military over all public institutions in Pakistan in 2004 has done nothing to improve the human rights situation there. Apart from the president’s refusal to step out of uniform, the increasing number of serving and retired military officers being brought into the civil service is sabotaging efforts at participation by the civilian public. The hand of the military is seen increasingly in the work of the police, prosecution and judiciary. Recent incidents in Okara, where people were brutally assaulted and tortured into signing agreements to hand over land for a military farm speak to the extent of control the army now feels free to exercise over the country.

Pakistan still lacks a legitimate constitution. Since its foundation, opportunists and power-mongering groups seeking personal advantage in the name of the greater good and law and order have manipulated the constitution. Consequently, generations have grown up knowing only the law of the jungle. They relate to gangs, personality-oriented political parties, sects and clans to attain their sense of security and identity. The concept of a civilised society is all but absent. Principles of the rule of law and a social ownership of public institutions—necessary for the protection and promotion of human rights—are non-existent.

Where the leadership of society has been taken over by the groups and individuals who use religion, sect, clan, class and other partisan bases to mobilise others for their personal political and social benefits, even the discussion of human rights become a challenge. The most common belief pushing disappointed youth is that given the anarchy, injustice and disrespect of human integrity prevalent in Pakistan, the only purpose in life is to die for a greater good. Economic deprivation and low literacy are certainly elements in the mixture, but more importantly, without remedies for human suffering, disillusioned and frustrated individuals look for recognition of their existence by making themselves available for use in violence and criminality. This trend is only exacerbated by the militarization of society, which encourages violence as a means to addressing problems.

Amid all this, ‘access to justice’ has emerged as a catch phrase, and the main area of international funding in Pakistan. Although campaigns have been promoted and generated great publicity for the government, they have failed to achieve their goal of bringing justice to the poor of Pakistan. Despite rampant claims of success from the government and its sponsor, the Asian Development Bank, real access to justice remains a far-fetched dream for ordinary citizens. The government set about reforming the policing system by way of its Police Order 2002. However, whereas the order was introduced on the pretext of making reforms, in preparing it the state once again failed to provide a framework through which issues relating to public accountability, institutional depoliticization, and people-friendly policing could be raised. Feudal lords and their cronies continue to manage police affairs and have ultimate responsibility over which officer is good for their area and which is not. Hence, they control the efficiency and operations of the police force. Ironically, in the name of reforms, the government has handed still more power to local politicians and feudal lords, the very persons responsible for causing gross injustices in the first place.

It has been observed that ordinary people in rural areas of Pakistan know very little of the institutional changes that are being trumpeted as successful from offices in the capital. To the ordinary person in Pakistan, what matters most is that should he require a response from the police he can get it without having to ask his local member of parliament or feudal lord. He also wants that should police officers commit a crime or abuse against him, he or relatives can seek redress without fear that political heavyweights will get involved. And he requires that if he ends up in police custody, he will be treated as innocent until proven guilty and not summarily killed because a local feudal lord wants it to be so. The ordinary citizen want that should she enter a police station, she will not be intimidated, tortured, and kept in arbitrary custody. As a woman, she wants special provisions to protect her from harassment. Minorities are also particularly concerned that they will not become the easy targets of fabricated and falsified cases to boost records of police efficiency. These are the concerns of most people in Pakistan, which persist despite the grand blueprints for change drawn up by government bureaucrats and their international partners.

One particular area of concern about which all the talk of access to justice has done nothing is the continued practice of honour killings through tribal courts in rural parts of Pakistan. Influenced by powerful clans, illegal and biased against women and the poor, the tribal courts persist as an informal justice system condoned by the authorities. State institutions do not generally take action on decisions from these ‘courts’ that result in murder, rape or other abuses. Many tribal leaders themselves are parliamentarians, members of the civil administration or men with family links to the authorities. In their official capacities they talk about human rights for all, yet in their constituencies they participate in these tribal courts. Ironically, the very people who are being called upon to usher in ‘good governance’ and ‘real democracy’ are handing down their own brand of punishment and running private prisons. The state, willing to exchange some of its powers for overall control, allows these men take responsibility for their ‘private’ matters. In Pakistan this means the exercise of absolute power by small elites over the vast majority, particularly women.

Sadly, in 2004 Pakistan seems a long way from realising most human rights: even judges and lawyers favour the use of feudal methods to resolve disputes, despairing that the judicial system and the courts are not up to the task. It has even been openly admitted and used as an argument in the courts that it is the usual practice for feudal lords to put pressure upon the parties in a criminal case to surrender and reach a negotiated settlement in order to avoid criminal punishment.

Both internationally and domestically, Pakistan has a lot of work to do in order that this situation be changed. Many international treaties ought to be signed and implemented in order to give some guidance and hope to the people that the way may yet be open for their rights to be protected. The institutions for administration of justice also must be approached differently, in terms of international standards, rather than being compromised by local ‘traditions’. Far greater efforts are also needed to foster the sense of popular ownership of—and participation in—public institutions. To do this, however, it will be necessary to resecure civilian oversight of these agencies, especially those responsible for administration of justice. This must be done in a manner that will keep them out of the hands of the feudal and political ruling classes: something that international donors must also consider with far more seriousness than at present. The Asian Development Bank and other concerned international agencies must likewise take greater responsibility in encouraging the government to ensure that law and order and policing is considered a central part of social policy in both the long and short term, through public debate and frank exchange. In this respect, an independent police reform commission or equivalent is also needed, and as a matter of principle ordinary citizens must be involved in the running of policing institutions at national and provincial levels.

However, ultimately no serious reforms can be undertaken to ensure human rights in Pakistan without challenging the impunity of state officials. As there is no independent body to monitor the police and hold them accountable for their actions, one must be established, and made accessible to the ordinary citizens. Special measures will need to be considered to ensure that people in rural areas are given opportunities to make complaints. At the same time, judicial corruption must be addressed. Unless the public perception of the courts as corrupt and ineffective is changed, the feudal lords and tribal chiefs will continue to enforce their own brand of justice in Pakistan, to the long-term detriment of the wider society and the movement for human rights there.


Although Bangladesh is a party to numerous key international treaties on human rights, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture, the flagrant rights abuses that have persisted there for decades continued unabated in 2004. These have included torture, deaths in custody; arbitrary detention of government opponents, excessive use of force leading at times to extrajudicial killings, summary executions, retention of the death penalty, sporadic attacks against members of the political opposition and minority groups, and horrendous acts of violence against women.

Most of these abuses have resulted from oppressive state legislation, broken-down law enforcement and judicial proceedings, and the role of the military. Law-enforcement agencies in Bangladesh do not create security; they cause terror. Inordinate delays in establishing human rights protection mechanisms at the national level breed discouragement. The independence of judiciary is far from being realised, as is the establishment of an ombudsman for receiving complaints.

Many of the human rights problems faced by ordinary citizens in Bangladesh during 2004 stemmed from the fact that the criminal justice system there has hardly changed since the British colonial regime held sway. The laws are outdated, and to the extent that they are operative, their implementation is flawed and falling far short of the promised standards under the international human rights norms to which the state has subscribed. The policing system is primitive and is limited in its function to order enforcement. For every 13,000 citizens there is one poorly paid and ill-trained police officer. Public prosecutors are politically controlled and at the mercy of the government. No means exist for public accountability over any state agencies, so police are free to misuse their powers and fabricate cases against victims. Proper investigations do not take place, and the police and military enjoy complete impunity. Prosecutors have their cases decided for them by political overlords, and the courts are completely malfunctioning. As elsewhere in the region, the lack of any witness protection programme means that people are unwilling to give evidence, especially in serious crimes. The sheer scale of corruption and the links between the police and criminals terrorise ordinary people and leave no possibilities for victims of human rights abuses to obtain redress.

Torture continues to be widely practiced in Bangladesh as a means to perpetuate the existing social order. It is widespread, systematic and far beyond state control. The AHRC has in the past pointed to the fact that although the government of Bangladesh has ratified the UN Convention against Torture, it has failed to implement it. No legal provisions exist to enable victims of torture to make claims for compensation and rehabilitation. The state does not provide medical facilities for the treatment of physical and psychological injuries suffered due to torture. Nor is there any immediate plan to introduce such legislation. However, several human rights groups are trying to work hard to change all this. Some are providing rehabilitation to torture victims. Some are also seriously speaking out about the necessary legal reforms. Unfortunately, the fact that the country’s two major political parties are forever embroiled in deep conflict prevents a national consensus being forged around this serious problem. It will therefore be necessary for human rights defenders and their allies in Bangladesh to find a way past this political impasse if they are to make large-scale progress in addressing the endemic torture and attendant human rights abuses in their society.


For over a decade, the plight of over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees has remained unresolved. Confined to cramped camps in Nepal and India for some 14 years, many youth know nothing but the frustrating life of refugees. Persistent approaches to the government of Bhutan in order to find a solution allowing for resettlement have so far led to nought, despite undisputed international recognition that the refugees are its citizens. The last serious attempt to arrive at a negotiated settlement broke down in March 2001; nothing has happened since. This failure must be laid squarely at the feet of the government of Bhutan, as it has deliberately ignored its responsibilities to the affected persons. The involvement of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees towards the repatriation of Bhutanese refugees has also been disappointing. It is reported to be preparing to slash the size of its programme for the refugees in Nepal at a time that its presence is needed more than ever in order that a viable solution is found that will favour the human rights of the camp residents.

Meanwhile, the causes of the refugee exodus and continuing low-ebb of human rights standards in Bhutan have not themselves been addressed. A number of discriminatory laws remain intact, such as the 1985 Citizenship Act, as well as discriminatory policies such as the One Nation One People programme. The judiciary is still weak and far from independent: judges have even been called upon to endorse political documents. Torture in police stations and prisons persists. The international community has had little part to play addressing such issues, and donors could do much more to address the urgent need for legal, judicial and administrative reforms in Bhutan. For its part, the government needs to be much more compliant in opening its doors to international agencies, including non-governmental organisations, to monitor the human rights situation and propose effective, efficient and transparent measures to ensure the rule of law and human rights.


Years of hard-fought battles to secure democracy and respect for human rights have suffered serious setbacks in Thailand during 2004. Many of these are the result of the deeply detrimental effect on law enforcement and judicial procedure caused by the “war on drugs” during 2003 that saw at least 2500 persons murdered as a result of prime ministerial order. Regrettably, the authorities have appeared bent on accelerating and widening the negative consequences of that campaign, and during the year the role of senior officials in the government, police and armed forces in approving and instigating gross human rights abuses has become increasingly apparent.
The incidence of torture in Thai police stations and other facilities began to obtain public recognition in 2004. Particularly in November, attention was drawn to a number of cases of horrendous torture at police stations in Ayutthaya province, north of Bangkok, which included electrocution, suffocation, humiliation and beating over relatively minor criminal allegations. Although a number of police officers have been suspended from their posts and others transferred pending investigations, which have been brought under the ministry of justice, to date none have been formally charged. Under any circumstances, there is no specific legal provision penalising torture in Thailand: the country is yet to ratify the UN Convention against Torture and bring it into domestic law. And despite growing calls at home and abroad for it to do so, a senior police officer recently endorsing the use of torture while speaking on national television has not been sanctioned for his remarks.

The opening up of public discussion on torture came at the cost of at least one life: that of human rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit, who was last seen in March while publicly advocating for the release of clients. The men, who had been charged in connection with insurgent activity in the south of the country, had also been horribly tortured: in addition to the kinds of practices described above, they had been urinated upon, and at least one had been hanged from a door. No police officers have been formally identified or charged in connection with their torture. Meanwhile, five others have been charged with offences relating to the disappearance of their lawyer, but the government has so far failed to satisfy public concerns over what happened to him.

Conditions in the south of Thailand deteriorated dramatically during the year, and have caused shock and alarm within the country and around the world. In April the security forces killed at least 107 civilians in a single day, 32 of them while holed up in a mosque. The manifest lack of resolute action to deal with those responsible for these and other atrocities committed earlier in the year left the door wide open for what was to come. At the end of October at least 85 more persons died in the aftermath of protests outside a police station, 78 of them while in army custody. Despite rhetorical commitment to uncovering the truth about that incident, the government has publicly refused a request from the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings to participate in investigations. So far there has not been any action towards judicial inquiries into the killings, nor have any adequate answers been given to the many serious questions arising out of the tragedy. Regrettably, there is no evidence to suggest that the outcome will be any different from the killings earlier in the year, thereby again leaving the door open for further atrocities in 2005 and beyond.

Thailand’s obsolete criminal defamation law was also increasingly deployed to silence public criticism of government policies during the year. With the exception of one television channel, owned by the prime minister’s corporation, the state holds a monopoly on electronic broadcasting in Thailand. Attempts to address this imbalance in accordance with provisions under the 1997 Constitution have been vigorously attacked by vested commercial and political interests. One case of particular concern relates to criminal defamation charges pending against a media reform campaigner, Supinya Klangnarong, whose research has demonstrated that the profits earned by the companies managed by the family of the prime minister have increased inordinately since he took office. Her case is going to court in 2005, and will be of historic importance for people in Thailand at a time that their right to express themselves freely on matters of public concern is very much under threat.

Against this overwhelmingly negative trend, two very hopeful developments in Thailand were the inauguration of a witness protection programme under the ministry of justice, and joint investigations between the police and public prosecutor in special cases. A number of victims of police torture and inhuman treatment have been placed under witness protection, and the attorney general’s office has been instructed to take an investigatory role alongside the police in these cases. There is growing public and regional interest in these welcome reforms, and if Thailand can build its witness protection scheme into an effective means to guarantee the security of victims of rights violations by state agents, it may serve as a model for other countries in Asia.

However, much more significant steps, among them the enactment and enforcement of anti-torture regulations, and others to strictly delineate the powers of police and other security officials are needed to bring about significant change to the human rights situation in Thailand. On the whole, despite professed concern by the government for the security of its citizens, at no time in recent years have the lives and fundamental rights of so many been more at risk than they are today. That at the start of December the government toyed with the idea of introducing internal security legislation to expand—rather than constrain—the powers of the security forces speaks to its lack of concern for the protection of the rights of citizens, even those constitutionally guaranteed. The proposal was only sidelined after widespread public outcry, and recognition from the authorities that they could get by with the five laws already in place to secure public order, including the onerous martial law regulations that already apply in numerous outlying provinces and districts. 

The events of 2004 speak to the fact that the law-enforcement and judicial system of Thailand is mired in a deepening crisis, and strenuous efforts will be needed to pull it free. The public there now faces enormous challenges, and new and untried approaches to protect and promote human rights are sorely needed. There is emerging evidence of persons coming forward to take on this task, among them, the victims of gross abuses, their family members and friends. Although likely to face severe threats from numerous quarters, there is evidence that a sense of the need to fight hard for fundamental human rights is growing in Thailand, and more and more people are prepared to take on the role. 


Two historical events of great importance to prospects for human rights in Indonesia occurred in 2004. The first was the direct election of a president. The second was the enactment of a long-awaited unified judicial system with the Supreme Court at its apex. For over four decades, the Indonesian judiciary was under direct control of the executive; as this has now been ceded to the Supreme Court, for the first time the principle of judicial independence has been established. However, in-principle independence is altogether different from practice. Whether or not the new president has the political will to reform the entire prosecution system so that the rule of law is properly established the independence accorded to the Supreme Court remains to be seen. And unless accompanied by reforms to the police, judiciary and other agencies, justice will remain illusory. The many entrenched corrupt practices in the legal system, such as verdict trading and abuse of managerial powers, need also to be addressed through monitoring and disciplinary agencies. A former Supreme Court judge has himself recognised that the main obstacle to the effective functioning of the judiciary in Indonesia is the widespread corruption among its ranks.

At the start of December, the National Human Rights Commission of Indonesia requested the national assembly to revise human rights law no. 39/1999, so that it can press state institutions to follow up on its findings and recommendations, in particular, the police and public prosecutor. In fact, the attorney general’s office has so far refused to even discuss the findings of the commission over killings and riots in May and November of 1998. The AHRC has already demanded that the attorney general use the in-depth investigation reports on these incidents placed at his disposal as a means to initiate criminal prosecutions. Regrettably, it has appeared that to date the attorney general has been interested primarily in causing delays in justice for the thousands of victims rather than in beginning direct investigations, as recommended by these reports. The effect of these delays is to grant impunity to the violators of gross human rights abuses. 

The failure of the judiciary and the attorney general to enforce even the existing laws in the country impartially and effectively has guaranteed impunity not only to the perpetrators of recent abuses, but also those going back to the assumption of power by the New Order regime in 1965. The massacre of over a million people and imprisonment of huge numbers of others created the climate of impunity that persists to this day throughout the archipelago. However, rather than filling the hearts of victims and their families with hope, the recent drafting of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission Bill has caused deep anxiety. Instead of being intent upon properly addressing the massive rights violations committed under the previous regime, the bill, which was passed this year, seems intent upon protecting the perpetrators of abuses from any subsequent attempts to hold them legally responsible for their actions. Although recognising at last that the gross human rights violations of previous decades must be investigated “in order to establish the truth, to maintain justice and a culture that value human rights”, the bill stipulates that mutual forgiveness between perpetrator and victim is a precondition for compensation, restitution and rehabilitation. In the event that the perpetrator of the crime is unwilling to be a party to this charade, the only alternative is for the case to go to an as yet untested ad hoc human rights court, which may involve considerable time and expense.

Extreme forms of torture and cruelty continue to be perpetrated by the police and security forces in Indonesia up to the present day, whether in Aceh, Papua or even in Jakarta, as evidenced by the recent shooting into a crowd of protesters with live bullets in Bogor. In that case, public pressure caused a commission to be appointed that found there was excessive use of force; however, the officers involved only received warnings. Meanwhile, a district court in Padang, West Sumatra recently sentenced five policemen to 18 months in jail for beating a drug suspect to death. When officers who shoot into a crowd get only a warning, and others who beat someone to death get only 18 months—and this is a rare instance of state officers being tried and convicted of such an offence—what confidence can people have in such a justice system?

Despite the gains of recent times, the military is still the pre-eminent power in Indonesia. Although overt power has been largely transferred to the national assembly, the military is well represented at all levels of policy-making and implementation. In conflict zones, it is the sole authority. The continued strength of its grip on all aspects of administration in Indonesia means that cases of human rights abuse committed in areas of civil conflict are never properly investigated or brought to the courts. In fact there is a strong feeling among ordinary people that such conflicts are being allowed to continue in order that the military can justify its entrenched dominance. This certainly applies where the police are concerned: recent efforts to grant the police a measure of autonomy are yet to take root. The historic control exercised by the military over the police persists both in mind and practice. The election of an army officer as president does little to assuage doubts that the military may not be called upon to take a new and equally powerful role for itself in the future.

Burma (Myanmar)

The AHRC has throughout 2004 continued to receive numerous detailed and disturbing reports of gross rights abuses from remote rural areas of Burma. These that speak to the continuing difficulty of persons there to obtain adequate food for survival due to destruction of life, crops and food stocks, rampant extortion, and confiscation of lands by the armed forces. One of the effects of this unrelenting nightmare has been the continued subsistence of over 100,000 refugees in camps along the border of Thailand, some for over 20 years. However, the refusal of the authorities in Thailand to recognise any new arrivals as legitimate refugees and grant them access to the camps has meant that Burma now has possibly the largest number of internally displaced persons of anywhere in Asia. Some estimates have suggested that in total over 600,000 persons have been forced from their homes into tenuous existences of one kind or another elsewhere in the country. A similar pattern on the western border with Bangladesh, where the refugee camps have been closed, has meant that the periodic influx of persons there—the last reported was of at least 15,000 people in October—has been treated as a routine matter easily addressed via forced repatriation.

During the past year the AHRC has concentrated its attention on cases from Burma that speak to the long-term breakdown of basic institutions for a functioning society. These cases indicate that despite the existence of courts, civil administrators and other external manifestations of law and governance, the functioning of these agencies has become so perverted as to make the prospects for the rebuilding of society post-dictatorship—whenever that may be—an extremely daunting task.

Among the cases that the AHRC took up through its urgent appeals programme in 2004 was that of a young boy placed in juvenile detention on allegations of throwing rocks at police after the massacre of opposition party members at Depayin in May 2003 by government-organised thugs. Court records obtained by the AHRC revealed that the presiding judge had either ignored or was ignorant of a child law that Burma introduced to comply with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, one of the few international treaties it has ratified. After a strong campaign emanating from the appeal, the boy, Maung Chan Thar Kyaw, was released from detention. However, the case illustrated clearly how Burmese judges operate in accordance with executive instructions and other exigencies rather than the laws even as they exist under the current regime. In fact, it is well recognised that most judges are appointed on the basis of their relationship to persons in the armed forces and administration, rather than training, and relatively few have proper legal qualifications. Even in the Supreme Court, earlier provisions stipulating professional requirements for judges were long-since removed in order that socialist party cadres of the earlier regime and persons close to the state leadership could take over the bench. Similar practices have continued today: in November, two Supreme Court judges and numerous other senior legal officials were sacked after the removal from power of the former prime minister, who was also the head of military intelligence. The judges were said to have either had connections with the former intelligence chief or had refused to give legal advice to convict him and his colleagues on corruption charges.

During the year, the AHRC also closely followed a number of cases involving complaints of forced labour, in order to investigate the workings of complaints against government officials in Burma. The practice of obligating citizens to do manual work, which has been widespread in the country, was only recently prohibited under an agreement with the International Labour Organisation (ILO). It was envisaged that the means for complaints and investigation of forced labour allegations in Burma could be established. However, when villagers have in practice attempted to make complaints, they have been consistently rejected, and then the complainants have faced counter-allegations of defaming public officials or refusing to do their instructions, for which they have been sentenced to jail terms as a warning to others. The exercise has failed because of the complete absence of any structures or principles via which complaints may be made against government authorities in Burma. Minus the rule of law, persons making such complaints can expect only to be punished for attempts to assert their rights, whether these be regarding forced labour, or any other institution or practice in the country. In this regard, the AHRC has also taken up the case of two rape victims of a local administrative official, Ma San San Aye and Ma Aye Mi San. The two, one of whom was a child when raped, were sentenced to four-years’ hard labour in October 2003 on the grounds that they had brought false allegations against a public servant. In that case, police, judicial authorities and members of the executive all conspired to pervert even the existing structures through which a basic criminal complaint may be lodged in Burma, as the respondent to the complaint was a powerful local official. The victims’ attempts to appeal to higher authorities fell on deaf ears.

Yet there is an enduring hope for Burma in the form of its human rights defenders. Oftentimes these are recognised first and foremost as the members of the opposition party, prominent writers and others struggling overtly for political change. Undoubtedly these are courageous and committed persons deserving of respect and recognition for their efforts. However, human rights defenders take many forms, and in Burma most remain unknown or unappreciated. Among those whom the AHRC has recognised during this past year are two villagers from the delta region named Ko Khin Zaw and U Ohn Myint. These two men have led forced labour complaints against their local administrative heads, for which they have faced the inevitable counter-allegations of criminal defamation. When found guilty of defaming the authorities and offered a small fine or jail (the court was under the watchful eyes of the ILO), both took a principled stand and chose jail—where they had both been put once already anyway. The mistake of the judge in offering the men this choice drove the local authorities into a corner. They had created two prisoners of conscience not on spurious allegations of national security concerns, like most political detainees, but on the basis of confused and improper application of state laws. A few days after the men were jailed, a remarkable thing happened: military intelligence officials paid their fines and ordered them released. The men are now reported to be contemplating an attempt to lodge their complaints in higher courts: in defiance of a broken-down system and in the face of the ‘un-rule of law’, it is persons such as these who represent the enduring movement for human rights in Burma.


Also during the last year, the AHRC received ongoing reports of arbitrary detention, torture and custodial death caused by brutal treatment of detainees in Malaysia. As in other parts of Asia, the perpetrators of these abuses typically enjoy impunity. In addition, the work of human rights organisations in Malaysia continues to be hampered by restrictive measures imposed by the authorities: human rights defenders there must contend with regular harassment, threats and limitations that violate their freedom to associate. Political activity is also curtailed through restrictions on the freedoms of expression and assembly. Furthermore, undocumented migrants and asylum seekers continue to be exposed to considerable risk of human rights abuse, particularly during operations aimed at their arrest and deportation.

Arbitrary detention is a continuing problem for Malaysians, with around 100 persons being detained under the Internal Security Act over the last three years. This law, which has been the subject of widespread condemnation both within and without the country over numerous years, permits unlimited successive two-year periods of detention without trial. Detainees are in many cases subjected to ill treatment and torture. The political repression meted out through the act has been given a lease of life by the “global war on terror”, as many other states and international agencies that used to vocally oppose such practices now turn a blind eye, or even engage in similar abuses themselves.

The ill treatment and torture of detainees in Malaysia, particularly those persons held under internal security legislation, has been thoroughly documented. These practices have included beatings, sexual humiliation and psychological abuse. Many of the victims have died. That this continues to be the case is a direct result of the impunity that perpetrators of violations continue to enjoy. The few investigations of abuses that do occur are cursory, and fail to result in criminal prosecutions. Deaths are often explained as having occurred due to failed escape attempts. For its part, the judiciary is unable to function with sufficient independence and rigour so as to ensure that the perpetrators of human rights violations are punished.

One case that the AHRC took up by way of urgent appeal in 2004 concerns the suspicious death of G Francis Udayapan. His body was found in the Klang River on May 23, covered with deep bruises. Officers of the Brickfields Police Station claim that Udayapan jumped out of the window while in custody on April 16 and drowned in the river. This explanation, however, does not account for the bruises or other aspects of the body’s appearance, which did not look as though it had been in the water for a month. Udayapan’s mother claims that her son might have died in police custody due to torture, after which the police dumped his body into the river. Added to her suspicions were the facts that the family was denied access to the post-mortem report, as well as the right to an independent inquest, despite several requests having been made. The authorities have also claimed that DNA tests on the body have led them to conclude that it was not Udayapan in the river. The alleged use of torture resulting in the victim’s death, the claim that he died while trying to escape, and the subsequent use of apparently falsified DNA testing and obstruction of family access to the post-mortem report in this case all speak to the deep problems besetting policing in Malaysia. All of these have a significant detrimental effect on the prospects of victims of human rights violations and their relatives who are seeking to obtain redress.

Similar problems are in evidence when examining the Malaysian judiciary. The judicial system has been significantly weakened through the years by domineering political leadership. No better recent example can be given than that of the former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim. Even for a man of this stature the judiciary was unable to function independently, and was forced to tow the executive’s political line: that too after it was clear that he had been physically abused while in custody. Ironically, Ibrahim’s protracted trial was an eloquent statement to the persistent violation of due process and fair trial in Malaysia over recent decades.

The release of Anwar Ibrahim this September 2, after being acquitted of all charges, is hopefully an important turning point in the country’s political and legal history. The decline of the rule of law and human rights in Malaysia may now have passed through their nadir. Ibrahim’s release should serve as the starting point for much-needed efforts to free the judiciary from political influence and hold the police accountable for their actions. The abrogation of internal security legislation, release of all persons detained under its provisions and launching of prompt and impartial investigations into allegations of the use of torture are also imperative for the country to make headway in securing the fundamental human rights of all its citizens. 


Singapore is virtually a one-party state where power into 2004 continued to be controlled so tightly that popular participation is only possible with the approval of the ruling party. Though parliamentary elections take place, there is hardly any chance for opposition parties to seriously challenge its power. The media is state-controlled, and the system of governance does not recognize the separation of powers. Defamation proceedings are used so comprehensively that any serious criticism of the government is impossible. The Internal Security Act, the twin of that deployed by the government in Malaysia—both having their origin with the earlier British colonial regime—permits arrest and detention without judicial supervision. This law and related regulations have a chilling effect on the exercise of freedoms by the people. The argument that national security requires such a law is tantamount to asserting that personal freedoms and national security cannot coexist. The considerations of the state in Singapore consistently prevail over individual freedoms. Restrictions on civil society organizations are so strong that no monitoring body with any initiative can exist. The government has kept itself outside the global human rights discourse by refusing to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, among other treaties. Thus the fundamental principles for implementation of human rights internationally have no legal effect inside Singapore, and nor can the state participate properly in any human rights forums abroad. Thus the possibilities for developing external pressure to improve human rights in Singapore also continue to be obstructed, leaving the country in what can only be considered a human rights vacuum. 

End of statement.

 PDF Version of the Statement

Open Letter to Mrs. Louise Arbour, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, on the occasion of December 10th – International Human Rights Day

Hong Kong, December 10th, 2004

Dear High Commissioner Arbour,

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) would like to take this opportunity to send you its warm regards on your first Human Rights Day in office as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. We would also like to reaffirm our full support to you and your office, and the important work that you undertake in favour of human rights around the world.

On this, Human Rights Day, the AHRC remains deeply preoccupied by the fact that the majority of people in the world continue to live in fear, insecurity and a vacuum of such rights. In many parts of the world the concept of personal justice that is enshrined in the lofty ideals that the international human rights system is tasked with upholding, is nothing but a pipe dream. The largest number of human beings for whom this is the unfortunate fate are located in Asia.

Human Rights Day should be an opportunity for the human rights community, particularly human rights organizations and activists, to look back critically at their own work and to ask whether there are any defective theories or practices that limit their impact. The AHRC hereby wishes to put forward its views on these issues, notably concerning situations in countries that are not “developed democracies”.

The collapse of the rule of law and the failure of the police and judiciary

Concerning most States in Asia, it must be noted that the principle barrier to the enjoyment of human rights is the collapse of the rule of law and deficiencies to components of the judicial system, notably the lack of a functioning policing system with adequate checks and balances, and an effective and independent prosecution and judiciary.

The AHRC feels that these issues do not receive sufficient attention from the international human rights community, and this despite the fact that Secretary General Kofi Annan has in the past pointed out the centrality of the rule of law. In “developed democracies,” issues concerning the rule of law and defective justice systems may not be significant enough to derail attempts to promote and protect human rights. For the rest of the world, however, attempts to promote the realisation of human rights are, in practice, obstructed by deficiencies in the rule of law and justice systems. Even if a government becomes a party to the various UN human rights conventions, the implementation of the content of these conventions is impossible without effective mechanisms and bodies in place within the country.

The prerequisite for the protection of civil rights is the presence of state authorities that can effectively investigate crimes and violations of human rights. The most basic of such state institutions is the police. In most countries it is the policing system that is defective. In such cases, the police not only fails to fulfil its obligation to investigate crimes and violations of human rights, but also forms part of the crime syndicate within the country. What hope for human rights in such a place?

The need to prioritise the provision of resources towards effective reform programmes

In recent years, the human rights community has spent enormous time and resources to educate the police and security personnel on human rights norms and standards. However, when the entire system remains defective and encourages crime and violations of human rights, can such violations be overcome by mere human rights education programmes? We are compelled to say that the international human rights community has not yet seriously addressed these issues.

Educational sessions on human rights are of little use, unless serious attempts are made to study and understand the actual defects of these systems and undertake activities that encourage the relevant governments to engage in serious reforms. In many instances, the lack of reforms on the part of governments can be attributed to a sense of powerlessness felt by members of the political leadership, as well as the risk to their personal security engendered by attempts to challenge the powerful, corrupt police and criminal nexus. Governments also complain that they do not have the resources required to enable effective criminal investigations or to pay their police forces adequately. The international community should therefore divert resources away from ineffective projects in order to assist in providing the means, support and protection required for such reforms to take place.

Civil and political rights are being undervalued

Another major defect of the post-Vienna period of human rights has been the tendency by the human rights community to treat civil and political rights as being of secondary importance, which has allowed extremely flawed judicial institutions to go unexamined and unchallenged. Certain governments agree to conduct cosmetic programmes on child rights, women’s rights or the rights of persons suffering from special disabilities, in countries that are beset by colossal, systematic violations of civil and political rights. In such countries, the populations are muted by fear and insecurity. This is brought about by the lack of effective mechanisms, including witness protection laws, leading to victims of vilations refraining from seeking justice. States are then able to claim compliance with human rights standards through show-piece activities.

If the enjoyment of human rights is to have some meaning for the majority of the world’s population, the issue of civil and political rights, particularly those of systemic and widespread violations in specific countries, should become the focus of attention. Civil society must also develop to become more representative of the wider populations in their countries.

The AHRC points out that the time has come for far greater dialogue and action regarding the obstacles to the realization of human rights, and a well informed common consensus must be reached to face up to these problems. Delays in holding such a discourse will only help the violators of justice and human rights. On this year’s Human Rights Day, we urge the human rights community to face up to the challenges that arise from such systemic obstacles to the rule of law, the administration of justice and protection and promotion of human rights. Many of the measures and mechanisms used in the bulk of human rights activities are not delivering the results that the severity of situations cry out for.

On the occasion of the Human Rights Day, the Asian Human Rights Commission  requests that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mrs. Louise Arbour, take the lead and launch initiatives that are conducive to changing the direction of the human rights debate, in order to enable these vital issues to be brought up for discussion and action. The defects in human rights theory and practice can thus be identified and corrected, allowing human rights to become a meaningful reality for the majority of the world’s people, who currently live without such rights.

Yours sincerely,

Basil Fernando
Executive Director
Asian Human Rights Commission