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Honouring human rights-based democracy

All around Asia, particularly in South Asia and Southeast Asia, people are suffering enormously under conditions of horrendous forms of repression. In many countries, the system of governance and management has so drastically collapsed that people no longer have the protection of the law. Democracy is undermined in severe ways in favour of more authoritarian, and sometimes anarchical, forms of governments. What life was for South Koreans some decades ago is what life is for vast millions of people today.

The collapse of governance and the management structures within society is manifest in most blatant ways at this moment when the Covid-19 pandemic is claiming large numbers of lives in all South Asian countries and also some of the Southeast Asian countries.

While Covid-19 is a recent problem, the process of the collapse of governance in many of these countries is a long-term problem. Bad systems of policing, the near-non-existence of credible criminal investigation systems that act on the basis of internationally acceptable standards, highly negligent and politicised prosecutorial systems, and the marked collapse of the independence of the judiciary are the normal conditions under which people in these countries live. Any average person living in these countries, if asked, will describe what a nightmare their life has become.

This tragic situation in these countries has gone unnoticed. When the Jews were being put into concentration camps and gas chambers, the world was silent. All the expressions of horror came only after the war when pictures of what had happened began to be exhibited through various forms of media. When Cambodia collapsed under the 1975-1979 regime of Pol Pot, the world was again silent. All the concerns about Cambodia’s people came only many years later, and by then the damage that would last for many decades to come had already taken place.

There seems to be some inherent incapacity to deal with an emerging catastrophe as it takes place. This is so particularly true in the field of human rights and democracy. Perhaps, it is better to spend a little time to ask as to why such delays take place.

In the human rights movements and democracy movements in particular, one reason stands out more than others. Most articulate voices and those with control over resources for the promotion of democracy and rule of law come from developed countries. In the post-Second World War period, they have not seen the kind of horrors the developing countries are going through. Besides that, centuries of development of the systems for the administration of justice, like the policing system, criminal investigation systems, prosecutorial systems, and also the judicial system, provide for these developed countries an umbrella of protection. We are not saying that these institutions are perfect. However, they are working reasonably well, and the people who grow up in these countries grow up in that environment and acquire their intellectual perceptions on the basis of their own lived experiences.

However, the lived experience of less developed countries is so different. Unfortunately, despite a movement for human rights, particularly beginning with 1948, while many things have been done, the global understanding of the life of people who are living in developing countries has not been grasped thoroughly by the global human rights community. The leaders of the global human rights community very often prescribe remedies based on their own historical experiences without any understanding of the kind of illness they are dealing with in terms of democracy, the rule of law, and human rights in developing countries.

It would not have been difficult to create a vibrant dialogue between the developed countries and developing countries if there was a realisation of the vast gap of consciousness and understanding that prevails between the two camps. All that was needed was to come into contact with people of developing countries who will express very clearly the existential conditions under which they live. However, there are no forums for such discussion.

None of the issues like the reform of bad policing systems, widespread torture that takes place daily through police stations, routine problems of extrajudicial killings and disappearances, widespread rape and also the abuse of the rights of women and the large-scale abuse of the rights of children, the large-scale plunder of natural resources, and the destruction of the environment and vast problems created in ecology, which in turn create serious health problems by way of the contamination of food and drinking water, have received adequate attention at least by way of a discourse that could be called an authentic one.

A democracy cannot exist if the judicial systems are undermined to an extent that the judges will have to pay a heavy price if they are to act independently, particularly on matters that are dealing with the wrongdoings of the Executive. Prosecutorial systems can be so contaminated by political factors that instead of serving to protect the people, these institutions will protect the Executive from the people. Worst of all are terrible conditions of highly corrupt and irresponsible policing systems that prevail in these countries.

These factors create a conflict of democracy because when these factors prevail, governments cannot exercise proper management over a country. When management structures break down, not only civil and political rights, but also economic, social, and cultural rights get deeply affected. The right to education, the right to health, and the right to proper food and drink and all the other factors that go in the name of human rights are also completely undermined when the management fails. And the management failure by the State is what we call a failed or failing State.

Failing states often resort to militarisation. Heavy levels of militarisation that is taking place in these countries is an indication of not just the violation of democracy and human rights, but also the abandonment of democracy and human rights altogether in favour of the rigid controls of an authoritarian system. National security laws take the place of normal laws. Administrative detention is used against everyone including the people who actively promote any positive reform, against intellectuals, journalists, human rights activists, trade unionists, and anyone else who represents the poor.

The underlying premise is that the poor do not matter. Anyone who tries to attempt to be of assistance to the poor is regarded as some kind of a subversive that is disturbing the peace. The peace here means the right to plunder national resources, for unlimited forms of corruption and causing the deterioration of the livelihoods and incomes and protection which are essential to live a life of dignity.

We should, at least to some extent, be honest enough to examine whether we have as much commitment – whether we at least have some genuine concerns about democracy in the world.

In this regard, it is our view that the global human rights community itself needs to face up to this situation. The Office of the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights, the offices of the Special Rapporteurs and treaty bodies, the UN Human Rights Council, as well as the major human rights organisations in the world and also the governments in affluent countries must genuinely re-examine their commitments to human rights and democracy in these countries.

What we are calling for is not about sanctions and punishments as is often misunderstood. What we are calling for is for a global discourse where resources will be made available for these countries, both to the government and civil societies, to do their tasks in order to improve their systems of policing, the systems of criminal investigations, the systems of the judiciary, the systems of prosecution, and all other institutions of accountability. This could happen only if the two parts of the world – those who live in affluent circumstances and those who do not live in affluent circumstances – are able to talk to each other on the basis of good faith and on the basis that they want to respect the human dignity of all.

If such a discourse could be created, the resources will naturally generate. Through common consensus, there will be less war and more discourse and dialogue.

It is a pity to see that often human rights are being used purely as a political tool for all kinds of hidden agendas which are not for the benefit of the people but for the people who represent powerful forces. This image of human rights should disappear. Human rights-based democracy should appear as a common heritage and the common rights of all the people who wish to pursue peace and who wish to contribute to a world where human resources and natural resources could be better utilised in order to generate the kind of respect for human rights that every person of good will wants to see.

(The writer is the Asian Human Rights Commission’s Policy and Programmes Director)

The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.