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The Asia-Pacific in Comparative Perspective

What do these theoretical approaches offer to an understanding of transitional justice in the Asia-Pacific region, and how do patterns in the Asia-Pacific region help advance our theoretical and empirical understandings?

Regarding the adoption and diffusion of trials, our work suggests that compared to other regions, Asia has made less use than Latin America of the transitional justice mechanisms considered here: transitional human rights trials, truth commissions, and amnesties. This is in large part the result of the fewer number of transitions to democracy in the region rather than any particular reluctance to carry out transitional justice. When we include human rights prosecutions and truth commissions in non-transitional countries in Asia, an important accountability trend seems underway in the Asia-Pacific region - a trend that has increased in importance in recent years. This new data and the chapters in the volume reveal that many more and diverse transitional justice responses are happening in the region than previously understood.

How do we account for these developments? First, many of the transitional justice experiences in the region are relatively recent and thus few previous studies have been published. Second, much of the work on transitional justice in the region has focused on single studies of countries rather than on comparative studies within the region or among regions. Single-country studies, or studies of single tribunals, may focus on the many ways in which such experiences fall short of the ideals of justice held by scholars or civil society organizations. For example, the problems with the Dili Special Panels for Serious Crimes (SPSC) in East Timor were significant. Nevertheless, when compared to the very few prosecutions in the related hybrid tribunal in Cambodia, the SPSC appears to have been a very active tribunal, in terms of the number of indictments, prosecutions, and convictions. On those counts, it compares positively to international tribunals in other regions. But, if we evaluate it in light of whether or not high-level officials who planned the human rights violations were held accountable, it would be seen as less successful. Some of the transitional justice cases are happening in particular subregions of countries (such as Aceh, Indonesia) and thus may not be recorded in the sources examining national-level phenomena. Third, many interesting transitional justice activities are taking place in the small Pacific Island countries with populations too small to usually be coded in global databases (such as the Solomon Islands; see Chapter 6). Finally, Asia- Pacific countries are making use of other types of transitional justice mechanisms - such as customary justice - that have not been studied systematically. Indeed, in our recent study of twelve countries identified as having adopted customary justice to address past human rights violations, four of the countries are in Asia Pacific: East Timor, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands.[1]

In other words, transitional justice in the Asia-Pacific region has been moving ahead. It has done so even when some of the theoretical explanations for the advance of accountability are absent from the region. In particular, the Asia-Pacific region lacks the regional human rights regimes and courts that have been important in Latin America, Europe, and Africa for furthering processes of transitional justice and accountability. A number of Asian Pacific countries have ratified the Rome Statute, but most of the human rights violations considered in this volume took place before ratification, so the International Criminal Court is not able to play a role in these cases, as it has in Africa. But, because diffusion processes happen first within regions, and the single biggest predictor of the adoption of human rights prosecutions and truth commission is their use by neighboring countries, it is likely that these diffusion processes have also led to some snowball effects in Asia. The important innovations in countries such as South Korea, Indonesia, and East Timor (see Chapters 3,5, and 7) may have served as regional models that were later emulated by other countries in the region. If so, we should expect to see more accountability in the future in the region, as the diffusion processes continue.

In terms of the impact of the transitional justice mechanisms already in use, there is not yet systematic evidence for analysis in the Asia-Pacific region. Based on our previous research, we would expect that countries that have made use of prosecutions to see more improvements in their human rights situation than countries that have not used such prosecutions. The accountability-with-stability approach would expect improvements in human rights measures if the countries also adopt amnesty laws. We are still uncertain about the effects of truth commissions, when used alone, although we expect that, if used together with trials and amnesties, they are likely to be more effective than when used on their own. Only with time and future research will we be able to determine whether the combinations that have brought positive outcomes for human rights elsewhere will have a similar impact in the Asia-Pacific.

  • [1] Of these countries, only Papua New Guinea, a non-transition case, has used customaryjustice to adjudicate human rights violations. The other three transitional countries usedcustomary justice as part of their restorative justice or reconciliatory processes. The datapresented on customary justice are based on research supported by the National Science Foundation (Grant No. 0961226) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council(Grant No. AH/K502856/1) relating to the project titled “Alternative Accountabilitiesfor Past Human Rights.” Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflectthe views of the National Science Foundation or the Arts and Humanities ResearchCouncil. We thank our NSF/AHRC research team working on customary justice forgathering this material, particularly Laura Bernal-Bermfidez, Pierre Louis Le Goff,Francesca Lessa, Gabriel Pereira, and Marcela Villarazzo.
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