The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog


Transitional Justice in Asia II

Posted in Internal Conflicts and Human Security by NTSblog on May 16, 2013
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Amnesty International issued a report last month, Time to Face the Past: Justice for Past Abuses in Indonesia’s Aceh Province, that urges for meaningful progress in seeking accountability for human rights violations committed during the conflict in Aceh from 1989 to 2004. Earlier this year, the International Crimes Tribunal of Bangladesh handed out the verdict for the two defendants accused of several accounts of international crimes; the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted a resolution (A/HRC/19/L.2) that encourages accountability and reconciliation for the Sri Lankan civil war. Some Asian countries face the challenge of seeking reconciliation and accountability for past international crimes as they are emerging from conflicts or large-scale violence.

Transitional justice (TJ) refers to mechanisms and processes that redress past systematic human rights violations. Justice is conceived in a broader sense in the field of transitional justice, which includes not only prosecution of perpetrators but also the telling of truth regarding past abuses, reparation, reconciliation and reform. It is considered by many people as an important step towards democracy and rule of law.

In the independence war of Bangladesh in 1971, over a million people were killed and tens of thousands of women raped. There were serious civilian casualties and wide-spread violations of international human rights law and humanitarian law in the final stages of the clashes in 2009. During the Aceh conflict, there had been wide-spread violations of human rights, such as extra-judicial killing, rape and torture. The pursuit of transitional justice for these crimes has been a mixed experience. The Bangladeshi tribunal has convicted four leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) who allegedly collaborated with the Pakistani Army in committing human rights violations. The Sri Lankan government appointed the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) to look back at the conflict and the commission produced a report with recommendations for reconciliation. There have been some prosecutions and reparations in relation to the human rights abuses during the Aceh conflict.

However, these activities are controversial and far from enough to achieve the objective of accountability and reconciliation. The war crime trials resulted in violent unrest in Bangladesh, with JI supporters questioning the credibility of the tribunal and the death penalty, while others demanded a harsher sentence. There have been criticisms of flaws and political interference in the trial processes. The implementation of the LLRC recommendations has been negligible. The Amnesty International’s report demonstrates that the exercise of justice in Aceh has made little progress.

Two issues are highlighted in the controversies and criticisms: an unbalanced approach to TJ and lack of people’s participation in the process. Complementary measures such as truth-telling and reparation have yet to happen in the case of Bangladesh. In addition, there has not been sufficient victim engagement in the trial processes. Sri Lanka’s progress in rebuilding infrastructure and resettling of displaced people has been acknowledged in the UNHRC resolution, but more work is needed in the areas of justice and reconciliation. In Aceh, victims and survivors have been denied truth and justice.

Transitional justice is a spectrum of judicial and non-judicial measures which are complementary. People should be the focus since they bear the brunt of abuses and violence. A integrated and people-oriented approach would be more effective in achieving justice and reconciliation.

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