News & Updates 10 June 2024

Germany: Challenges and Opportunities for Transitional Justice in Asia Discussed in Berlin 

Berlin, Germany, 10 June 2024 – How do efforts for accountability and justice after conflict fare in the region where half the world’s population lives? What do truth-seeking, justice, and healing mean for the people who live there? A resonant, albeit short, discussion took place on 10 June, as Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR) joined the Global Learning Hub for Transitional Justice and Reconciliation at the Berghof Foundation in Berlin, Germany, to discuss challenges for transitional justice in Asia.

AJAR has been a Hub network partner for quite a while, but this was the first time they were part of a conversation directly focused on promoting human rights and transitional justice in Asia, particularly in Myanmar. AJAR’s President, Patrick Burgess, Executive Director, Galuh Wandita, and Myanmar Programme Coordinator, Moses Gum, shared insights with an audience of civil society organisations, moderated by the Berghof Foundation’s Barbara Unger.

Human rights challenges in Asia

The discussions opened with an overview of human rights challenges in Asia by Patrick Burgess, drawing from his extensive experience working across various country contexts. He highlighted the persistence of cycles of violence, stemming from underlying root causes that manifest into outbreaks of mass killings and torture, followed by temporary periods of peace before resuming. To achieve lasting peace, he elaborated, it’s crucial to address these root causes and factors contributing to the violence. “We have this diverse region, and we must expect the tide of impunity to come back. Our job is to look at the root causes and what contributes to these cycles of violence,” Patrick added.

There’s growing concern about a global trend towards a retreat from democratic values and a resurgence of authoritarian tendencies, both regionally and globally, in the very recent past. This concern led to the establishment of Asia Justice and Rights 13 years ago – which focused on empowering local organisations that had already formed so that they can carry on the struggle for truth, justice and victims’ rights in their own context.

More than a decade later, much of AJAR’s work falls under the umbrella of what they call “transitional justice” – including prosecuting those responsible, uncovering and sharing the truth about what’s happened, and learning from that to design the reforms needed to break the cycles of violence, and assisting victims through reparations. These four pillars guide AJAR’s work, which is deeply rooted in collaboration with grassroots communities and victims themselves.

Transitional justice, victims’ rights, and reparations in Asia, with a focus on survivor-led processes

Very early in its establishment, AJAR reflected on various different participatory exercises that it conducted with survivors from Timor-Leste, Indonesia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and other places, knowing that even though participatory action research (or PAR, for short) has existed for a long time, it has yet to be utilised within transitional justice frameworks.

In response, AJAR started developing a set of toolkits and a manual called Unlearning Impunity. This resource enables survivors to discuss truth and justice in safe spaces, prioritising their perspectives and agency. Over the years, AJAR has witnessed the transformative power of this approach, as survivors and their communities organically develop a shared understanding of the issues they wish to address in the aftermath of conflict and violence.

Reflecting on the decade’s worth of process, Galuh mentioned, “We need to look at how we can work on victims’ rights in a holistic way, how we can find a way to work with survivors and civil society and how we can also work with joy and hope in situations that are quite difficult.”

She elaborated on how the results also helped inform AJAR’s own advocacy efforts. Through its programs in Bangladesh, AJAR learned from Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, who have been creating beautiful embroidery quilts depicting their stories of survival. These quilts have become a focal point in communicating the parallel processes unfolding in international legal mechanisms like the ICC and ICJ. The complexities of these legal processes are vast, and without the refugees’ understanding of their significance, achieving any genuine meaning or impact becomes difficult.

Myanmar’s ongoing conflict 

Myanmar is one context in Asia where working on transitional justice is particularly challenging. The country, as explained by Moses, who comes from the northernmost part of Myanmar, has been in a vicious cycle of violence for over 70 years, which was exacerbated by the recent military coup and ongoing uprising that started in 2021. International attention is rather sparse as human rights issues are often underreported.

“We have had a series of peace negotiations in the past that have all failed because the international community perceives the Myanmar conflict as too complicated. Yes, it is complex, but it is resolvable,” Moses mentioned.

Participants later engaged in discussions about the challenges facing Myanmar, including the legacy of colonial-era borders and divisions. They shared perspectives on addressing these issues, particularly in terms of capturing international attention and engaging the global community. Various strategies for achieving truth and justice were explored, such as actively listening to survivors’ stories, employing creative methods to document their experiences, and collaborating with public intellectuals and artists to raise awareness.

The discussion concluded by emphasising the ongoing importance of capacity building for human rights actors. Navigating the complex and often corrupt environments prevalent in many parts of Asia, where military influence is strong, rule of law is weak, and nepotism is rife, requires specialised skills and knowledge. Any achievement in such contexts carries significant weight and can inspire further progress.