Basil Fernando

Ashoka Fellow
Hong Kong,
Fellow Since 2005

Citation

This profile was prepared when Basil Fernando was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2005.
The New Idea
Basil and his Asian Human Rights Commission are building a continental movement that reveals human rights abuse, advocates solutions, scrutinizes public institutions, and fixes serious flaws in the justice systems of Asian societies. He argues that the field’s prevailing techniques are inadequate to Asia’s unique challenges, largely because they evolved in societies with stronger judicial and political systems. Asia’s social situation is different too: huge numbers of the poor people face prejudice and exclusion and benefit little from the law. Unable to address these realities, the human rights field has evolved into two disjointed styles of work. The first responds to individual cases, communities, and issues as they arise—a grassroots approach. The second addresses legal reform: rewriting laws, arguing cases in court, critiquing systems. Seldom do the two interact effectively to achieve real change.

Basil unites the two by demonstrating how “protection” of victims and their communities is the missing link between grassroots credibility and systemic reform. Unprotected and exposed to reprisal, people do not dare lodge a complaint against police or inquire after a disappeared child. The result is silence and inaction. The rights movement itself must offer protection, since police, government, and the courts are too weak or complicit to do so. Without protection, “participation” is not possible; without participation of victims, campaigns lack the driving energy of a citizen base. And without a base, the field cannot effectively monitor institutional practices, scrutinize them, and redress failures. This duty falls to the citizen at risk—the dalit, the tribesman, the widow, the detainee.

Basil has built a number of ways to put this core idea into action. One is an electronic Urgent Appeals system that transmits information about cases of abuse to outside friends and supporters. Urgent Appeals works. AHRC has flooded rural police stages with faxes from all over the world while a detainee is still in custody, often securing his release. Another is what amounts to a “grassroots witness protection program” that houses and cares for victims, witnesses, and others in danger of retribution. In Sri Lanka, this underground railroad, linking poor villages around the country, harbored a youth tortured by police, shielding him from intimidation, until the day he took the witness stand. Supporting these initiatives are networking, training, and campaign programs. These include, to name some, the Asia Human Rights Folk School; web-based graveyards for the disappeared; a regional People’s Tribunal program; the Human Rights Correspondence School; internships for human rights workers at AHRC’s Hong Kong headquarters; publications; and radio, television, and newspaper advertising; and a program that monitors national human rights commissions.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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