Responses to Mass Crimes in Asia, and the Case of North Korea
Responses to Mass Crimes in Asia, and the Case of North Korea
Patrick Burgess, Asia Program, International Center for Transitional Justice
The Asia region has the unwelcome distinction of being the host to many of the worst atrocities of the twentieth and twenty first centuries. The list of countries in which mass human rights violations have taken place may in fact be larger than those which are exceptions. We can include on this list at least Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Korea, Laos, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Timor Leste and Vietnam and a number of others, with a combined death toll estimated to be more than 30 million people. Many of these refer to historical situations but the incidence of mass violations is a current one. Opening a newspaper any day brings Asian violations to the fore: Burma, North Korea, Afghanistan, Iran, Sri Lanka, the list goes on. Alongside these reports are references to the extraordinary economic growth in the region and the challenges to the domination by the west, which the east is progressively posing.
In such a context we might expect to be able to find an impressive array of examples in which those most responsible for the gross violations have been brought to justice. Unfortunately the opposite is true.Asian states may be expected to suffer from the same influences which serve to support powerful figures in other parts of the world, no matter what they may have done, no matter how horrific the crimes they have orchestrated. However it is arguable that Asia in fact lags behind other regions in the slow and unsteady progress towards the rule of law and acceptance of international standards. Two interesting indicators are membership of the International Criminal Court and the record of regional human rights mechanisms. Asia lags behind other regions in relation to ratifications of the Rome Statute, and it is far behind other regions in terms of the powers and role of regional human rights organizations. We can refer to the recent movements in ASEAN in this regard but the truth behind this welcome progress is that it is the result of decades of dedicated work by activists and the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission is at this time still a toothless tiger, bound by the self-serving attachment of states to the idea of ‘Asian values,’ and ‘non-interference,’ as a replacement for the notion of universal human rights which is increasingly accepted by the rest of the world.
The cause of this poor record in Asia is unclear. Some issues relevant to the slow regional development concerning justice include the fact that Asian states do not share common regional languages and therefore are denied the benefits brought by the common base of French and English in Africa, Spanish in Latin America, Arabic in the middle east etc. The lack of a common colonial heritage, or the bonding effects of regional wars are also among the causal factors sometimes referred to as relevant to the difficulty in achieving any regional consensus. It is unclear if these are the factors which are active in preventing regional solidarity on moves for justice and accountability.
In this context we see an almost total impunity for those most responsible for mass violations in Asia. The aftermath of the period of military dictatorships in Latin America has included persistent efforts to bring those leaders responsible to justice. Amnesties in Argentina, Peru and Uruguay have been reversed. A significant number of generals and heads of state such as former Argentinean President Jorge Rafael Videla and former Peruvian President Fujimori now find themselves serving long prison sentences.
Do we find the parallels to this kind of progress in the rapidly developing Asia, and if not why not? How can this kind of analysis help us in addressing complex situations like Burma and North Korea, and if we cannot see any progress on achieving a measure of truth and justice even in the countries touted as success stories, such as Indonesia and more recently Nepal, what strategic approach should we take on difficult cases in the region? These are the questions we face in relation to the massive crimes being committed in North Korea.
We do see some progress in the region, but it is the result of long periods of sustained effort. We now see some of the senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge on trial in Cambodia; 35 years after the atrocities were committed. In Dhaka proceedings have commenced against a number of alleged leaders of the genocide and crimes against humanity, which caused the death of up to three million Bangladeshis in 1971. It has taken 40 years to achieve the level of political change to make this possible. And even these achievements are fraught with problems, with the Bangladeshi process receiving criticism for not complying with international standards and the Cambodian ECCC being pushed around by obvious political factors. In Indonesia we have seen progress on establishing specialized human rights courts and the trials of 34 individuals only to see each one of them gradually acquitted following trials and appeals leaving a zero success rate.
Other forms of transitional justice can contribute but in Asia there is the danger that they will be manipulated to achieve an anti-justice agenda. In Timor Leste the CAVR was widely viewed as doing good work and producing a credible report, the Indonesian-Timor Leste Truth and Friendship Commission also produced an important report but was accompanied by an agreement between the two governments that this should not open the door to justice for victims, but rather be used as a symbol of closing this chapter of the past, with no senior leaders held accountable. A TRC in Sri Lanka has been criticized as an excuse to not move forward on either truth or justice, a TRC in Thailand faces significant challenges and bears the hope of the people to contribute to ending a potential ongoing conflict, which is a new potential role for TRC’s. Examples of reparations programs for victims are difficult to find, in Aceh and Nepal there have been some successes but these have been marred by providing too much support to ex combatants, which includes many perpetrators, and not enough for victims. There are many more examples of partial victories and movement forward although Asia still lags significantly behind other regions.
It is in this context that we find ourselves trying to address the context decades of mass violations being committed behind a strong veil of secrecy in North Korea. How can we use the achievements and failures in Asia and other regions to build a strategic approach to this challenge, hoping that change will come quickly for the sake of the victims, but knowing that the struggle may continue for decades before we see some of the results we are seeking.