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Final Statement of the Regional Consultation on Democratisation and People’s Participation in Asia

By Forum-Asia and Imparsial  •  December 8, 2011

In conjunction with the 4th Bali Democracy Forum

Preamble

We, the representatives from civil society organisations of 16 Asian countries, gather here on 6 and 7 December 2011 in conjunction with the 4th Bali Democracy Forum to critically assess the situation and highlight challenges to democratization and human rights in Asia.

The year 2011 has seen both the Arab Spring sweeping away long-reigning despots and the Occupy Movement protesting against the marginalisation of the majority of the world’s people. Democracy and democratization must therefore focus not only on civil and political rights but also the enhancement of economic, social and cultural rights, recognising the urgency to address the structural causes of extreme poverty, deteriorating inequality and rampant corruption. Democracy is not only threatened by authoritarian regimes but also by corporate interests that erode national sovereignty and suppress people’s participation. In that sense, democracy must be protected not only from unelected political institutions such as the military and monarchy, but also from unelected corporate conglomerates.

In Asia, while the reforms in Burma seem promising after two decades of suppression, we must not forget that war against ethnic minorities like the Kachins is on-going and as many as 1,700 political prisoners remain imprisoned. Until armed conflicts and persecution of political dissidents end, the reforms remain window dressing.

Against this background, the regional consultation themed “Democratisation and People’s Participation” urges the 4th Bali Democracy Forum to urgently act on following four specific areas:

1. Defending an Enabling Environment for Asian Peoples and Civil Society

Participatory democracy is not complete if civil society lacks an enabling environment to function effectively and independently. The increased challenge for Asian civil society organisations is the violation of civil liberties including freedom of expression, right to information, freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of association and freedom of religion. This is mainly caused by draconian laws, lack of judicial independence, arbitrary arrests, pervasive use of torture, extrajudicial killings of human rights defenders and other use of violence by state and non-state actors. Ironically, while the theme for the 4th Bali Democracy Forum is “Enhancing Democratic Participation in A Changing World: Responding to Democratic Voices”, some Asian governments are doing the exact opposite. Cambodia is currently enacting a law to restrict freedom of association while Malaysia’s Lower House recently passed a bill on freedom of assembly that is more restrictive than Burma.

In many Asian countries, repressive laws against civil liberties have created a climate of fear and compounded the people’s ability to participate political processes. The shrinking of public space by governments and political parties through violence, control of funding and intimidation stifles civic participation and genuine public discourse. Some countries like Burma are still plagued with armed conflicts and ethno-religious persecution.

Asia lacks a functional human rights court and in many countries, national human rights institutions do not always work independently and effectively, especially in post-war and transitional countries. Ordinary people’s political participation is also curbed by two other factors: firstly, the ineffectiveness of legislatures in representing the peoples’ needs and aspirations; and secondly, the controlled media environment which prevents pluralistic political expressions.

2. Independence of Judiciary and Judicial Watch

Independence of the judiciary is fundamental to democracy as it ensures the rule of law in society. In many Asian countries, there are serious issues regarding the capacity and integrity of the judiciary and legal professionals. Appointment processes for judges, prosecutors and other legal officials are often influenced by politics, nepotism and patronage which threaten judicial independence. In many countries, the office of public prosecutor is not independent from the executive branch. Government control of regulating bodies (such as bar associations and judicial commissions) also undermines the independence of the judiciary.

We note with concern that judgments and information about judicial system are often not publicly available. This increases risk of corruption, hampers ability of civil society to monitor the judiciary and prevents the general public from understanding the judicial system and access to justice. In some countries, such as Cambodia, criticizing judgments can constitute contempt of court, severely restricting the ability of monitoring programs to analyze decisions. Justice is also denied when citizens cannot access or afford legal representation.

3. Corruption, Right to Information and Democratisation

Corruption is one of the major concerns undermining democracy in Asia. Those with resources can have undue influence on public policies and this transaction of power for money denies the right of ordinary citizens to have their interests represented through legitimate political participation.

Democratisation must therefore entails a vigorous campaign against corruption and  a strong legal framework including anti-corruption laws, right to information laws and other laws with independent enforcement bodies to  enhance transparency and accountability.

4. Transformative Social Protection in Defending and Claiming Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Asia is home to two thirds of the world’s poor and hungry, with more than nine hundred million living in extreme poverty. At the same time, 78% of Asia’s work force is pushed to the informal sector where they suffer from extremely low wage and precarious working conditions while often facing risk of human trafficking. More fundamentally, the neo-liberal development model of liberalisation, deregulation and privatisation aggressively pursued by corporations undermines the sovereignty of state to provide social services, displaces millions of people from their land and natural resources, enlarges the gap between the rich and the poor, accelerates environmental degradation and eventually engulfed the world in financial crisis from Asia to the United States and now in Europe. Austerity measures meted out as response to these crisis further undercut the social protection for the people with regards to education, healthcare, housing, food, water etc.

Transformative social protection is therefore an urgent demand by the people to address continuing crises and chronic poverty resulting in massive deprivation and social exclusion of millions in Asia – denied of their basic economic, social and cultural rights that are essential to their life. Even in countries where they have poverty eradication programs including minimal social protection, these programs often exclude the most vulnerable including the stateless, undocumented, internally displaced people and refugees.

Recommendations

In this regard, we, the representatives from civil society organisations of 16 Asian countries, strongly recommend Asian governments:

On Enabling Environment for Asian Peoples and Civil Society,

  • To ratify and implement core international human rights instruments;
  • To establish and strengthen regional and national human rights institutions and mechanisms to protect and promote the rights of peoples and human rights defenders in accordance with the Paris Principles;
  • To implement recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders;
  • To review all laws that restrict space of civil society and people’s participation, including the proposed law on non-governmental organisation in Cambodia and the Malaysian bill on public assembly;
  • To empower their legislatures and make consultation with all stakeholders a pre-requisite in law and policy making processes; and,
  • To free media from censorship and concentration of ownership so that the media can effectively represent different voices of the people.

On Independence of Judiciary and Judicial Watch,

  • To provide professional trainings to judicial officials and practitioners;
  • To ensure that judicial appointments are made on transparent, objective and impartial criteria;
  • To guarantee independence of the office of public prosecutor, especially from the executive;
  • To ensure transparency of judicial process, in particularly all judgments should be made publicly available except to protect privacy of minors and victims of sexual violence and other exceptional circumstances in line with human rights; and,
  • To work with civil society to ensure independent and accessible legal aid services for all.

On Corruption, Right to Information and Democratization,

  • To enact strong legislations that guarantee the right to information and make declaration of assets by senior public officials and their family mandatory;
  • To involve civil society in monitoring and facilitating the enforcement of such laws; and.
  • To end impunity in corruption by state officials through strengthening the judicial and prosecution systems and removing immunity of public officials from criminal charges.

On Transformative Social Protection and Fulfilment of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,

  • To implement social policies that include universal social protection towards the fulfilment of the economic, social and cultural rights while giving priority to employment, essential services, food, social assistance to vulnerable groups such as the elderly and disabled;
  • To institutionalize transformative social protection programs and integrate these into national development strategies that bring about the redistribution of income, wealth and opportunities, and promote ecological stability as well as democratic control over people’s lives and the economy; and,
  • To involve the people, especially the marginalized, in the planning and implementation of such social protection programs.

We call on all Asian Governments to implement these recommendations in their regional and national programmes.

We welcome the on-going initiative of the Indonesian government to foster dialogue between Asian states on democracy through the Bali Democracy Forum. However, we are disappointed that the Forum has consecutively excluded for four years the participation of civil society organisations who are one of the main stakeholders of democracy.

We call on the future Bali Democracy Forums to include civil society organizations in their deliberation and follow-up actions. To begin with, the Bali Democracy Forum should make publicly documents related to the proceedings and decisions of the Forum.  The Institute for Peace and Democracy as the implementing agency of the Forum should step up its engagement of civil society to ensure meaningful participation of Asian peoples in realising genuine and functioning democracy.

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