While the COVID-19 pandemic’s initial effects drastically changed all aspects of normal life in Asia and the Pacific, governments in the region have met the challenge with varying degrees of success. Most have avoided high infection rates seen in other parts of the world, save for India’s most recent outbreak. Some countries, such as South Korea or Taiwan, have been able to appeal to their citizens’ sense of duty and avoided severe restrictions, until recently. Other countries, such as New Zealand, reacted with strict measures, and were successful in almost eradicating the virus.
However, in many countries, lockdown and containment measures were accompanied by harsh restrictions on civil liberties. In China, the crackdown on whistleblowers, such as Doctor Li Wengliang, was initially met with criticism and concern, but with a reinvention of the narrative there has been a surge in support for the central government’s efforts. These measures further emphasize China’s already worrying rule of law decline, reflected in the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index with China’s Constraints on Government Powers (Factor 1) score decreasing by 21.8% over the last five years.
The pandemic has also served as a cloak for government crackdowns on civil society, as occurred in India where protesters marching against a controversial citizenship law were arrested and detained under anti-terrorism laws, prompting five UN special rapporteurs to express concern. In the Philippines, whose score for Constraints on Government Powers (Factor 1) declined by 4.3% between 2019 and 2020 alone, a longtime activist was arrested and detained on fabricated charges.
The overall situation in Asia and the Pacific is a mixed bag of success stories and harsh controls on civil liberties disguised as measures to contain the pandemic. The full impact of the economic downturn is yet to be felt. To review the regional challenges and understand what comes next in the recovery process, WJP convened a panel of regional experts and local changemakers on April 6, in the context of its World Justice Challenge 2021.
> Watch the event recording and see a full list of speakers and finalist projects on the event page.
WJP's regional partners echoed the multi-faceted impact on Asian and Pacific countries and their diverse responses to this crisis. Kim McQuay, Managing Director of the Program Specialist Group at The Asia Foundation, pointed out that the lack of access to trustworthy information in many countries has made it difficult to accurately evaluate the impact of the pandemic. Nonetheless, several countries have seen reports of increased gender based violence, attacks on basic rights, and a decline in access to justice.
Maria Cecilia T. Sicangco, Senior Legal Officer for the Law and Policy Reform Program within the Office of the General Counsel at the Asian Development Bank (ADB), concurred with Mr. McQuay’s analysis. She added that women and vulnerable communities have been disproportionately affected, with migrant groups unable to access formal services in many countries. The region has also seen an exponential increase in gender-based violence coupled with the fact that women have been burdened with increased unpaid and domestic work as quarantine measures were enforced and people were forced to move inside.
As the third wave of the pandemic has begun in the region and we see an increased strain on government services, solutions to these challenges are even more necessary. Both of WJP's partner organizations have pivoted their programs to respond to the pandemic’s impact on vulnerable groups and the judicial system. The Asia Foundation has created online training sessions for youth groups on addressing gender based violence in Cambodia, and is leveraging technology to deliver legal and counseling services in Bangladesh and Indonesia. The ADB is focusing on its APVAX initiative to ensure member countries can receive and deliver COVID-19 vaccines in a fair and equitable manner.
The World Justice Challenge 2021 finalists from the region offered their own insights into how their work can serve as a template to build back better. For example, countries in South Asia have struggled to protect human rights, with no country in this region scoring above the global average for Fundamental Rights (Factor 4).1 In Pakistan, lockdown measures have pushed people inside and online. In a country where cyber harassment is a particularly prevalent issue, the Digital Rights Foundation’s (DRF) Digital Helpline saw a 145% increase in cases from January and February to March 2020, coupled with a 500% increase in cases relating to online defamation from February to March. These cases disproportionally affect women. To address this, DRF set up the region’s first dedicated cyber harassment helpline, with the Digital Helpline Support Team composed of a qualified psychologist, digital security experts, and a lawyer who provides specialized assistance and is supplemented by a referral network of government and non-governmental organizations.
In Afghanistan, the COVID-19 pandemic has put incarcerated populations at risk. Additionally, more women are charged with so-called moral crimes, often a consequence of leaving environments where they are subject to domestic and gender based violence. Through legal advocacy, the International Legal Foundation was able to petition the Afghan government to release more than 22,000 people from overcrowded prison situations. The ILF provided 150 women and girls released through this process with comprehensive legal aid and reentry services, such as divorce and custody assistance, mental and physical health services, and mobile phones for them to contact their lawyers if they are exposed to violence upon their return. The program gave women and girls agency in their decisions and futures, providing them with a path out of the prison system and into society.
In Nepal, Dalits are at the forefront of caste-based discrimination and bear the brunt of COVID-19 violence. Nepal has already seen a worrying decline in its score for Fundamental Rights (Factor 4) according to the WJP Rule of Law Index2, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated their exclusion. To remedy this, Samata Foundation produced a 12-episode television series, Jaat ko Prashna, to increase awareness of the discrimination, violence, and exclusion experienced by the Dalit population. This program has sparked national conversations about the treatment of Dalits and has put extra pressure on the government to enforce laws, such as the Act on Caste-Based Discrimination and Untouchability. Advocacy efforts from the program resulted in the Chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee for Law, Justice and Human Rights instructing the Nepalese Police to form a special Dalit Cell and the Chief Minister of Sudurpashchim Province formed a committee to draft a Dalit Empowerment Bill, which was later replicated in other provinces.
Increasing the Capacity of the Judicial System
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a particular impact on countries’ capacity to deliver justice services. As lockdown measures went into effect, courts had to shut down and many people were left without access to judicial services. In Bhutan, the United Nations Development Programme worked with the Judiciary of Bhutan to initiate an e-litigation project. Prior to the pandemic, the nature of Bhutan’s terrain made travelling to courts near impossible for many remote populations, deterring these populations from accessing the judicial system. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this issue by closing down in-person courts across the country. Therefore, UNDP developed e-litigation rules and regulations and provided video conferencing equipment to 14 courts across the country, allowing 52% of courts to undertake virtual hearings between March–October 2020.
The Pacific Judicial Strengthening Initiative, led by the Federal Court of Australia, has sought to address a similar issue of large remote populations and widespread ignorance of legal protection and access to justice remedies. The organization built systemic and human capacity to deliver digital court proceedings in Pacific Island nations by providing courts with remote hearing and case management software, training, and resources. They also distributed Remote Court Hearing Toolkits and gender-based violence and human rights guides and checklists. This work has helped lay the foundation for Pacific Island populations to access formal courts even after the pandemic is over.
Leveraging Technology for Government Accountability
The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the risk of government misinformation and lack of accountability in many Asian and the Pacific countries. Acting already in shrinking civil spaces, organization and government watchdogs were further restricted as governments used emergency powers and interrupted the flow of accessible information.
In the Philippines, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused government procurements to be expedited, bypassing normal measures that ensure transparency and fairness. Layertech Software Labs used the existing framework of their Project OCDex to monitor these contracts and detect inefficiencies and red flags in COVID-19 related government procurement. The OCDex platform “translates” government procurement datasets, which are often difficult for citizens to analyze and download due to the volume of files, into insightful and easy to understand visualizations, making procurement data accessible and usable by citizens. The project has incited and produced policy recommendations (local and national) and has helped stakeholders monitor sector-specific government contracts and identify red flags and bottlenecks.
In Myanmar, where the recent political crisis has seen extreme government violence, resulting in the death of over 700 unarmed citizens, the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the need for civil society groups and citizens to access technology to report on government violence. Tella, a documentation app developed by Horizontal, enables users to collect data about government violations of political and human rights through an encrypted system. The technology does not require any sort of technical expertise, is designed to work offline in areas where users have no access to the internet, and provides protection from censorship, tampering, interception, and destruction of such records.
You can read more about these inspiring projects on the World Justice Challenge website.
1 According to the WJP Rule of Law Index 2020, all six countries measured in the South Asia region score below the global average of 0.56 for Factor 4: Fundamental Rights.
2 From 2015-2020, Nepal’s Factor 4 (Fundamental Rights) score fell by 7.14%.