First Asia-Pacific Regional Meeting: Civic Space and COVID-19

13 April 2021 –

The COVID-19 Pandemic has been misused as a pretext for limiting civic space and suspending or circumventing parliamentary oversight in several countries in the Asia-Pacific region, resulting in massive corruption risks in the governments’ responses to the pandemic. Anti-corruption activists described similar developments in their countries during the first Asia-Pacific regional meeting of the UNCAC Coalition, which took place on 26 March 2021.

13 representatives from member and affiliated civil society organizations from all over Asia and the Pacific region, as well as members of the Coalition Coordination Committee (CCC), an individual member, and colleagues from the Coalition’s Vienna Hub participated in the event. As this was the first regional meeting, participants devoted time to introduce themselves and their respective organizations. Yonatan Yakir, Programme Manager of the Coalition provided an overview of the Vienna Hub and its activities and the Coalition’s current priorities at the national and international level. Main advocacy tools such as the Transparency Pledge, ongoing consultation platforms, such as the Working Group on Victims of Corruption and the Coalition’s advocacy efforts around the first-ever UNGASS against corruption were also highlighted. 

The Regional Coordinator for the Asia-Pacific region Fatema Afroz set the scene for presentations and discussion on the main agenda item of the meeting: The pandemic, its implications on civic space, and on the state of corruption in the region.

The Pandemic and its Implication on Civic Space in Malaysia and the Asia- Pacific Region

Cynthia Gabriel, Vice-chair of the Coalition Coordination Committee, and Co-founder and Executive Director of the Coalition’s member Centre for Corruption and Cronyism (C4) in Malaysia, discussed the state of civil society in the reality of the pandemic. Affecting citizens’ life aspects in various ways, COVID-19 also seems to be abused by different governments to gain more power and to silence criticism. 

These governments are developing legal and other restrictions on civil society’s activities, limiting the flow of information and transparency regarding the spending of government funds, such as for procurement of vaccines. Moreover, fundamental human rights including freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are being compromised while all these are related to civil society’s ability to fight corruption and to ensure transparency and accountability. 

Overshadowed by the reality of the pandemic, the public discussion in countries in the region is heavily restricted. Cases of holding up and harassing civil society organizations were reported in Malaysia, attempting to instil fear among activists. Authorities have been calling CSOs working against corruption into police stations for questioning the government of certain activities during the pandemic. While the Malaysian parliament is being suspended due to the situation, a large amount of money is being spent without parliamentary approval. The suspension of democracy to varying degrees is the case in more than a few countries in the region, in the name of curbing the COVID-19 virus, and the shrinking of civic space seems to be a multi-country challenge. Mentioning also the situation in Myanmar, Ms. Gabriel reminded participants that “corruption issues are also human rights issues,” and that the current military rule in Myanmar is restraining access to information and reporting by the media.  

Ms. Gabriel concluded her presentation by highlighting that beyond the specific issue of the pandemic, transnational matters of illicit financial flows and money laundering are crucial issues to work on from a regional perspective. It is time to collaborate and to find ways how our local work can be brought up to the global community, through advocacy opportunities such as at the UNGASS. CSOs in Asia-Pacific should enhance collaboration and advocate for “real strategies that will make a real difference.” 

Corruption and Governance Challenges in Handling the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Case of Nepal and Beyond

Babu Ram Poudel, Executive Director of the Forum for Protection of Public Interest (Pro Public) began his presentation with an overview of the outbreak of COVID-19 in Nepal. He highlighted governance challenges and corruption prevailing in Nepal, ranging from lack of transparency in the procurement of medical equipment, to lack of accountability and timely and effective investigations of related corruption cases. However, the governance challenges in handling COVID-19 are not unique to Nepal.  

In India, the press reported that a government portal set up to address grievances related to COVID-19 received over 167,000 complaints, which included grievances relating to corruption, the misuse of funds, and harassment by government officials.  The Vietnamese press reported on the sentencing of the head of Hanoi’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention to 10 years in prison after he was found guilty for overstating the cost of imported COVID-19 kits, and Indonesia’s social affairs minister is accused of taking bribes while arranging food aid for people affected by COVID-19.  

Following this presentation, participants shared experiences on governance challenges related to the pandemic, as well as on how civil society is coping with the situation. In Bangladesh, there is a lack of transparency in the procurement process and allegations are being made that the procurement is controlled by a syndicate. There are restrictions on publishing information, as well as disparity in the disbursement of the COVID-19 stimulus package, as revealed by TI Bangladesh’s research report.  

In Fiji, recent action by Youth for Integrity Fiji managed to halt the progress of draconian police powers being passed into legislation. Aiming to contribute to the advancement of good governance in a broader sense, Caritas Philippines launched a first-time campaign supporting young and new political leaders. During the open discussion, it was highlighted that having a safe platform for CSOs to share experiences and good practices should not be taken for granted. 

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In conclusion, participants appreciated information shared about the work of the Coalition on the global level, and agreed to continue sharing updates as member and affiliated organisations in the region. After presenting a list of potential corruption-related topics gathered through CSO feedback, participants agreed that in the forthcoming Asia-Pacific regional meeting, discussions should focus on steps that can be taken to achieve progress on a regional agenda. 

The next regional meeting will take place in late June. It will provide an opportunity to reflect on the newly agreed commitments the international community is about to make at the UNGASS, as well as to continue exchanging knowledge and good practices on key issues of corruption in the Asia-Pacific region.  

If you are a civil society activist from the Asia-Pacific Region and would like to become involved, please contact our Regional Coordinator Fatema Afroz at email hidden; JavaScript is required.