A need for
Many people across Asia are frustrated by
the widespread lack of respect for human rights in their countries.
Some may be unhappy about the limitations on the freedom of expression
or restrictions on privacy, while some are affected by police brutality
and military killings. Many others are frustrated with the absence of
rights on labour issues, the environment, gender and the like.
the expression of this frustration tends to stay firmly in the private
sphere. People complain among friends and family and within their
social circles, but often on a low profile basis. This kind of public
discourse is not usually an effective measure of the situation in a
country because it is so hard to monitor.
Though the media may
cover the issues in a broad manner they rarely broadcast the private
fears and anxieties of the average person. And along with censorship – a
common blight in Asia – there is also often a conscious attempt in the
media to reflect a positive or at least sober mood at home, where
expressions of domestic malcontent are discouraged as unfashionably
unpatriotic. Talking about issues like torture is rarely encouraged in
the public realm.
There may also be unwritten, possibly
unconscious social taboos that stop the public reflection of private
grievances. Where authoritarian control is tight, sophisticated
strategies are put into play by equally sophisticated media practices to
keep complaints out of the public space, sometimes very subtly. In
other places an inner consensus is influenced by the privileged section
of a society, which can control social expression of those less
fortunate. Moral and ethical qualms can also be an obstacle.
this way, causes for complaint go unaddressed, un-discussed and
unresolved and oppression in its many forms, self perpetuates. For any
action to arise out of private frustration, people need ways to get
these issues into the public sphere.
In the past bridging this gap was a
formidable task; it relied on channels of public expression that
required money and were therefore controlled by investors. Printing
presses were expensive, which blocked the gate to expression to anyone
without money. Except in times of revolution the media in Asia has
tended to serve the well-off and sideline or misrepresent the poor.
thanks to the IT revolution it is now possible to communicate with
large audiences at little cost. In this situation there is a real
avenue for taking issues from private to public, regardless of the class
or caste of the individual.
The AHRC Urgent Appeals system was created
to give a voice to those affected by human rights violations, and by
doing so, to create a network of support and open avenues for action.
If X’s freedom of expression is denied, if Y is tortured by someone in
power or if Z finds his or her labour rights abused, the incident can be
swiftly and effectively broadcast and dealt with. The resulting
solidarity can lead to action, resolution and change. And as more people
understand their rights and follow suit, as the human rights
consciousness grows, change happens faster. The Internet has become one
of the human rights community’s most powerful tools.
core of the Urgent Appeals Program is the recording of human rights
violations at a grass roots level with objectivity, sympathy and
competence. Our information is firstly gathered on the ground, close to
the victim of the violation, and is then broadcast by a team of
advocates, who can apply decades of experience in the field and a
working knowledge of the international human rights arena. The flow of
information – due to domestic restrictions – often goes from the source
and out to the international community via our program, which then
builds a pressure for action that steadily makes its way back to the
source through his or her own government. However these cases in bulk
create a narrative – and this is most important aspect of our program.
As noted by Sri Lankan human rights lawyer and director of the Asian
Human Rights Commission, Basil Fernando:
"The urgent appeal
introduces narrative as the driving force for social change. This idea
was well expressed in the film Amistad, regarding the issue of slavery.
The old man in the film, former president and lawyer, states that to
resolve this historical problem it is very essential to know the
narrative of the people. It was on this basis that a court case is
conducted later. The AHRC establishes the narrative of human rights
violations through the urgent appeals. If the narrative is right, the
organisation will be doing all right."
Patterns start to
emerge as violations are documented across the continent, allowing us to
take a more authoritative, systemic response, and to pinpoint the
systems within each country that are breaking down. This way we are able
to discover and explain why and how violations take place, and how they
can most effectively be addressed. On this path, larger audiences have
opened up to us and become involved: international NGOs and think tanks,
national human rights commissions and United Nations bodies. The
program and its coordinators have become a well-used tool for the
international media and for human rights education programs. All this
helps pave the way for radical reforms to improve, protect and to
promote human rights in the region.