Tackling ASEAN Crime and Justice Challenges

ASEAN just celebrated its 55th anniversary on 8 August 2022.

We have come a long way from our humble beginning to becoming a force to be reckoned with – the convening power like no other. But we should not be under any illusion that the road ahead is going to be rosy. ASEAN is not without its challenges, especially in the current context of international security and geopolitics and the Covid-19 recovery.

One of the purposes of ASEAN as enshrined in the ASEAN Charter is to strengthen democracy, good governance, and the rule of law, and to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms. For ASEAN to be fit for this particular purpose, its Member States must consolidate collective political will to further enhance their respective criminal justice systems.

It is why in 2015, the ASEAN Law Ministers Meeting (ALAWMM) endorsed Thailand’s proposal to establish the “ASEAN Conference on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (ACCPCJ)”. Under the aegis of the ASEAN Senior Law Officials Meeting (ASLOM) – the main body in charge of legal matters in ASEAN, the ACCPCJ serves as a public forum to promote the exchange of views among practitioners and academia on crime and justice issues. A track 1.5 diplomacy, it allows stakeholders to test the water with new ideas before turning them into policies.

Despite its inaugural launch in 2016 and the 2nd conference in February 2020, the ACCPCJ is still in its teething stages. From prison reform and offender rehabilitation to cybercrime and ASEAN youth, the momentum of these issues was completely halted right after the 2nd ACCPCJ when the world plunged into the abyss of unprecedented crisis. Governments, institutions, corporations and individuals have had to deal with a new paradigm shift in multiple sectors and facets of life.

Adapting to this strange new world has been a struggle for many, and the criminal justice system is no exception. The shift of increasing activities towards online mediums and channels as a result of Covid-19 also saw a parallel spike in cybercrime whereby transnational criminals are extremely sophisticated to adapt and outsmart authorities through technical and legal loopholes. Increasingly, online and call centre scams have become a new form and norm of public manipulation, along with a disturbing rise in online sexual exploitation.

Meanwhile, public health interests were abused as a convenient justification for governments to restrict human rights and civil liberties and erode democratic principles. The restrictions on travel and in-person meetings, as well as the imperative to focus on containing the pandemic, also significantly disrupted the ability of states to cooperate and coordinate international initiatives, further hampering the ability to deal with increasingly complex crimes.

Additionally, the pandemic exacerbated existing issues within criminal justice systems; court backlogs worsened as judicial systems struggled to adapt to remote hearings, overcrowded prisons, an extant and chronic issue in numerous states saw corrections systems straining to cope with the requirements to enforce social distancing while Covid-19 rampaged through prison populations.

The 3rd ACCPCJ will be organised by the Thailand Institute of Justice (TIJ) in Bangkok from 22 to 24 August 2022. Bringing together practitioners, experts, policy makers and civil society actors from across ASEAN and beyond, this year’s conference features the theme: “Responding to Crime and Justice Challenges amidst ASEAN Recovery from the Covid-19 Crisis”. The three clusters of issues to be tackled also include: cybercrime; justice reform and international cooperation.

For the first time since the pandemic, the ACCPCJ will be mostly in-person, allowing for cooperation and cross-pollination of ideas. It is high time for ASEAN to generate awareness on this issue, and the importance of cross-cutting coordination among all three community pillars of ASEAN. In 2017, the ASEAN Leaders adopted the ASEAN Declaration on Culture of Prevention aimed at promoting upstream measures to prevent various social and environmental ills. Thailand believes the political momentum is ripe for ASEAN to mainstream a preventive culture across all sectors to address crime and justice challenges.

As we look into the ever-changing world, it becomes imperative that justice cannot exist without inputs and contributions from all sectors of society, be they youth, the private sector, academia, civil society and the media. The TIJ has sought to harness their creative and innovative energies through its capacity-building and research programs, executive courses, community engagement and advocacy on the rule of law, crime prevention and criminal justice. One may argue that ASEAN’s track record in this area is a work in progress, which may be true. This is precisely why we need relevant international standards and norms to stack up against and educate our citizens. At the end of the day, “Justice is Everyone’s Matter”. We are all in this together!