Pushing for Accountability in the Time of the Pandemic

Lessons from TJ Efforts in Nepal, Aceh, and the Asia Region

Transitional Justice Asia Network (TJAN) hosted a series of webinars exploring how different contexts have been coping with transitional justice efforts during COVID-19. Our second webinar focused on pushing for accountability and lessons from TJ efforts in Nepal, Aceh (Indonesia), and across the wider Asia region.

As the world continues to adjust to a new reality where the health threat of COVID-19 takes precedence over all other agendas, some citizens find their leaders reverting back to familiar and abusive patterns. Across Asia, people are experiencing greater restrictions on freedoms, militarised and violent responses under the guise of ‘pandemic task forces’, unaccounted government spending, and greater exposure to the cracks in their health, employment, education, and legal systems. Pushing for accountability has become as challenging as ever for human rights defenders, and transitional justice experts warn that human rights violations will grow if governments remain unchecked.

Human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, and victims of past human rights abuses are experiencing unprecedented challenges in holding governments accountable during the pandemic. While Aceh in Indonesia has had to cease conducting truth-seeking fieldwork, Nepalese people have been struggling with increased police brutality, as the youth protest against unaccounted for C-19 response money.

A graphic recording of the session by Afridal Darmi from Aceh Truth and Reconciliation Commission ©TJAN/Agah Muharam

Afridal Darmi, Chairperson of Aceh Truth and Reconciliation Commission, elaborated the TRC’s progress prior to the lockdown in March. Three public hearings had already been conducted with the latest one planned this year to be postponed due to refocusing of the local government budget. A total of 968 victims was planned to be interviewed on top of the 5,000 already on records. 244 names have been recommended to the Government of Aceh to be treated for immediate reparations.

He also pointed out an interesting similarity between the situation amidst pandemic and the ongoing pursuit of accountability. In the case of Aceh, throughout history, the province has a bleak experience of denial and procrastination. During the time of peacebuilding after 2005 Helsinki Peace Accord, justice for past abuse of human rights and rights of victims were put on hold for the reason of ‘not endangering the still-fragile peace’ at the time.

The postponement of a public hearing this year was not the only truth-seeking effort affected by the pandemic: a total of 15 memorialisations that were supposed to take place in 2020 have also been cancelled. Aceh TRC is currently advocating for 4,280 names on their records to get the COVID-19 relief and recovery policy from the Government.

The Government commitment for accountability still remains to be seen, especially amidst the pandemic. A plan to establish a national truth and reconciliation commission is supposed to take place this year — will the Government track record of delaying and denying rights of victims continue, and will Aceh TRC with its years of progress be part of the national transitional justice process?

A graphic recording of the session by Mandira Sharma from Advocacy Forum-Nepal ©TJAN/Agah Muharam

Mandira Sharma, the founder of Advocacy Forum-Nepal, said that the pandemic, unfortunately, has provided the Nepalese government with the opportunity to put more restrictive and authoritarian measures in place. A continuation of human rights abuses is being observed by human rights defenders, lawyers, and citizens. 20,000 people have died due to Covid-19, but there is no accountability of emergency spending, and overall poor to no access to basic health and medical services.

Militaristic government approaches to enforcing regulations against pandemic have seen a rise in breaches of human rights, including excessive use of police force, illegal arrests, migrants stranded at borders, torture, arbitrary detention, and restricted access to justice mechanisms.

She added, transitional justice efforts have been sidelined because of the pandemic, with the Nepalese government ‘excusing’ human rights abuses and lack of accountability on the pandemic. Restraints on freedom of speech and association have been enacted. Nepalese youth are seeing the escalation in restrictions and violations, and are involved in on-going protests for accountability and transparency of government spending for the pandemic.

Meanwhile, poor and marginalised communities are at the highest risk, with irregular government relief. There have been reports of suicide and gang rape of women in enforced quarantine, due to a lack of support and services.

A graphic recording of the session by Patrick Burgess from Asia Justice and Rights ©TJAN/Agah Muharam

Patrick Burgess, President of Asia Justice and Rights, provided a regional perspective on how the pandemic affected the push for accountability. Prior governments, he stated, are responsible for the poor infrastructure, poor legal systems, poor health care/services, and poorly resourced communities that are suffering greatly under this health emergency.

Furthermore, the lack of transparency by leaders about government spending means billions of dollars, which were supposed to be used to develop medical infrastructure, are instead siphoned off and used for personal matters. In some developing countries, prison cases are unable to progress in courts due to the lockdown. Lack of hearings means people continue to be kept in custody.

He argued the root cause of poor responses to the current pandemic is clearly linked to states with a history of authoritarianism, corruption, nepotism, and a record of human rights violations — echoing Afridal’s point of accountability having clear ties to how countries are shaping policies and responding to the pandemic.

To stop authoritarian leaders from using the pandemic as an opportunity to push their own agendas, states need strong check and balance systems to maintain transparency and accountability. Truthful national human rights commissions, investigative journalists and academic think-tanks can blow the whistle when money is misspent.

Here is why pushing forward transitional justice is important with prosecution as a key part. Mass violations are not isolated experiences and impunity is present in every instance. When people commit violations and are not prosecuted, violence and violations become the norm; another group will commit the same act, as they know they will not be punished.

The three speakers highlighted how unresolved injustices of the past exacerbate current injustices and put victims in a more disadvantaged position. In dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, we can see many States that have not learnt from the past or broken the cycles of impunity oftentimes revert to the familiarity of human rights violations as a response, such as the use of police and military to enforce these responses, siphoning money without transparency, to the lack of access for poor and marginalised to health services.

With the transitional justice processes have been put further on the sideline, pushing for accountability in the time of the pandemic become more important seeing how past violations impact present violations.

A regional NGO working to strengthen accountability & human rights in Asia-Pacific | Confronting mass violations & combatting impunity

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