19 September 2019
The Asia region has a great variety of historical experience, religious and cultural traditions and legal and political systems. It has seen transitions from colonialism and occupation, armed conflict and military rule. This diversity is reflected in the variety of different approaches taken to pursuing accountability for the worst human rights abuses, and justice for victims.
In recent decades, the region has seen a number of criminal courts and tribunals specifically established to examine severe human rights violations. In Cambodia and East Timor, the UN has been heavily involved, while Bangladesh has pursued a national model. Transitional justice efforts in Sri Lanka have been encouraged and supported. Truth commissions were set up in the Republic of Korea, the Indonesian province of Aceh, Nepal, Timor-Leste, Thailand, the Solomon Islands and Taiwan, Province of China;, and Sri Lanka has committed to do so.
In East Timor, Indonesia, the Philippines, Nepal, the Republic of Korea, and Thailand, programmes aimed to provide some relief or reparations to victims of human rights abuses have been adopted. Countries have also combined different elements in complex models, such as East Timor's transitional justice process, embracing criminal prosecutions, truth commissions, reparations, and – most recently – a dedicated follow-up mechanism.
In several cases, steps have also been taken at the international level. The ICC has conducted examinations or investigations into alleged violations in Afghanistan, the Philippines and now Myanmar/Bangladesh. The Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar has also been set up to facilitate prosecution – ideally, in the region – of perpetrators of international crimes, given persistent impunity and denial at the national level.
None of these models is perfect; some suffer from significant flaws. But from our shared experience of how these processes have unfolded over time, we can detect key recurring lessons and good practices. These should strengthen our collective approaches in future, as well as assisting concerned societies in advancing their own national initiatives.
Criminal justice is indispensable to rebuilding societies on the basis of rule of law. When applied fairly and even-handedly, it deters new crimes, helps to reconcile, and thus paves the way to more sustainable peace. Many societies, including in my own continent, have learned the hard way that when perpetrators are emboldened by a culture of impunity; when militaries are not reformed; when victims are silenced – grievances will fester, democracy is undermined, and new cycles of violence can recur.
It is equally clear that criminal justice can be a long time coming, and that by itself, it may not fully address all the damage suffered by society. Broader, transformative justice measures are needed to engage individual and collective healing, and to honestly confront misleading narratives. They help to rebuild a society's confidence in the State itself, and indeed in the very notion of the rule of law.
Alongside criminal justice processes, therefore, we need to deploy a more comprehensive and holistic approach which may include processes of national consultations; steps for truth-seeking; reparations programmes; institutional reforms; reconciliation measures – including through traditional ceremonies; formal State acts of acknowledgment and apology; and revision of relevant educational curricula, among other steps.
Victim-centred initiatives are powerful, whether through the memorialization of victims, the building of accessible archives or cultural programming – as well as social and medical programmes to address trauma, including the effects of trauma on victims' children. And it is crucial that victims, and other members of the public, be empowered to participate continuously and meaningfully in drawing up and implementing all transitional justice measures. No matter how powerless or marginalised they may be, people who have suffered torture, the disappearance of loved ones and other violations have a right to true accountability.
It is vital that officials at the highest level acknowledge what has happened, and take a measure of responsibility for the violations or abuses which have taken place.
A society emerging from massive and wide-scale human rights violations is facing many challenges – including the challenge of building bridges between previously hostile communities. The Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar is very much a case in point. It may be that not everything can be achieved all at once; in fact, the full process of justice may take many years. But when there is a genuine commitment, at the highest levels, to ensure real action – and a genuine acknowledgment of the full reality of what has occurred – this, in itself, can bring hope to those who have suffered crimes.
In this respect, I want to emphasise the need to address specific violations, which may have disproportionately affected women and girls, including sexual violence. These are not crimes, which any society can afford to simply sweep away in indifference and denial.
I also want to stress the need for reform of the security sector. The entrenched power and impunity of the military in some States is a barrier to achieving democracy and sustainable development. Both the military and law enforcement forces will gain from measures that assist them to become an effective and accountable force for the benefit of the entire society. In many countries, we have observed that although it is often slow, progress in security sector reform – including through carefully designed vetting programmes – has opened avenues for other transitional justice measures, and contributed to reconciliation. Conversely, without successful efforts towards security sector reform, other measures are likely to wither.
The role of civil society is critical in galvanizing action and pursuing creative approaches in difficult contexts. In Bangladesh and Indonesia, civil society groups have taken significant steps to document abuses and provide victims with a public platform. In Timor-Leste, Sri Lanka, Nepal and elsewhere, strong victims' networks have been set up, ensuring that their voices are amplified and heard.
The root causes of conflict need to be addressed. These may include severe and long-standing inequalities; systemic discrimination, exploitation and corruption; and a generalised contempt for the rights and dignity of specific groups of people. Overlooking these underlying human rights issues when formulating responses sets us up for failure, because they will inevitably continue to erode the common fabric of society.
It requires profound political courage to take on these issues. Great dexterity may be needed, to conceive solutions that respond to the specifics of the situation at hand. There is no one solution that can fit every situation, as we may see during your discussion. And this means all of us in the human rights community need to consistently learn, review and reconsider what has been achieved.
I am pleased that we have this opportunity to take stock of many achievements, with our panel of distinguished speakers, and I look forward to your discussion.