Building Just and Accountable Societies Free from Impunity
by Patrick Burgess, President of Asia Justice and Rights
When AJAR was founded, with a mission to help break the cycles of mass human rights violations occurring across the Asia Pacific region, we identified key contributors to these cycles — lack of accountability, impunity, and intolerance. The past decade has reinforced our belief in the fundamental importance of these factors.
The emergence of the COVID-19 virus in November brought a new global reality. As countries struggle to control the health threat, we are again confronted with the impact of a lack of accountability, impunity, and corruption linked to authoritarian regimes. Massive resources stolen by despots in recent decades in countries like Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, North Korea, and China, were used to buy unimaginable luxuries for leaders, their families, and cronies. Those resources belonged to the people and should have been allocated for building hospitals and universities, training doctors and nurses and buying medical equipment, now urgently needed to deal with the pandemic.
In a number of countries, effective responses have been severely hampered by ineffective leaders, appointed for reasons of nepotism and political power rather than merit. Societies are once again paying the cost of unchecked government, with the poor unable to access healthcare as a result of a failure of accountability. As we face this global pandemic, lessons of the past are more relevant than ever.
Responses to the pandemic have included invoking emergency powers, with the authority of the security forces unchecked. Reports have been received of violations committed by those entrusted to enforce ‘social distancing’ regulations. In many countries, criticism of government has been outlawed and journalists questioning the appropriateness of resource allocation, arrested. This inevitably leads to the re-emergence of authoritarian regimes and more impunity, oppression and economic ruin.
The new emerging reality means that AJAR needs to adopt new and effective strategies and tools. We have already developed online learning methodologies, drawing on our deep experience of using film, television, social media and music to increase understanding of rights and justice issues. These methods will be continuously adjusted and streamlined to meet the needs of our partners. Our teams are sharing basic information on the pandemic and new challenges to their rights in plain language and translated into the local vernacular, for Rohingya refugees and for indigenous communities in Papua, Myanmar, and Timor-Leste. Maintaining linkages with local communities remains critical, connecting their voices with important regional and global initiatives.
Defending human rights, tolerance and accountability are more important now than ever. Across the region, our staff and partners are working to challenge impunity and to hold governments to account. Voices of victims, and those challenging violations and government failures, are more important than ever, as we move through this crisis towards a fresh, new, and more accountable future. AJAR is proud to stand beside our partners working in difficult contexts of conflict, displacement, and neglect during these important times.
This piece is written as the foreword of AJAR’s Annual Report 2019, as well as to commemorate #AJAR10Years.
Read our full report here on our website.