A Human Rights Commission: Possibility or pipedream?

M Ravi

20 Jul 07


I have just returned from a very important meeting in Manila, Philippines. It was the 6th Workshop on the ASEAN Regional Mechanism on Human Rights. Don’t let the long title put you off; the content of the workshop was much less didactic.

In fact, it was exciting in terms of the development of human rights in Southeast Asia. Member states of ASEAN had come together with civil society representatives to hammer out a charter on human rights.

Yeah, so what’s new, we’ve heard all this before. Yes, I know. Much has been said about human rights before in ASEAN and little has been done, I agree. But this time, things seem to be a little different.

ASEAN had set up a High Level Task Force (HLTF) to work on the terms of reference for the subject of human rights in the charter.

This is where it got interesting. Philippine Foreign Secretary, Dr Alberto Romulo, the keynote speaker at the workshop, surprised participants when he said that ASEAN foreign ministers were discussing a regional human rights “commission” and not just a nebulous “mechanism”.

Before we get carried away and start celebrating, however, we need to ask what is going to go in to such a commission. How will it be constituted? What powers will it have? Will it be comprehensive?

Unfortunately, Dr Romulo refused to divulge such information, citing only that negotiations were on-going.

The charter with provision for a human rights commission will be, as I understand it, finalized when the foreign ministers meet in Manila in early August and it will be officially signed at the ASEAN Summit scheduled for November this year in Singapore.

I still have a hard time imagining that the Singapore Government will acquiesce to submit to a regional body especially one on human rights issues.

So what’s the catch?

There was talk at the workshop about the governments limiting the commission to addressing issues on the rights of women, children, and migrant workers, leaving out general human rights of civil and political societies.

This would suit the Singapore Government just fine, wouldn’t it? Women’s issues and children’s rights are matters that the Government would much prefer to deal with than fundamental human rights issues of free speech, free association and peaceful assembly. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Government has been lobbying for such restrictions.

And yet, the Indonesian, Filipino, Thai, and Malaysian national human rights commissions, in their consultation process with the HLTF, recommended that the ASEAN charter should: 1. Ensure that principles and objectives of the AEAN Charter include the principles of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms;

2. Include a provision in the Charter on the importance of the role of National Human Rights Institutions;

3. Include a provision on the importance of the establishment of National Human Rights Institutions in every ASEAN Member State that has not done so.

Even Cambodia is presently working to set up a human rights commission. That leaves us with countries like Burma, Laos, Vietnam, and Brunei that have no human rights commission. Not very respectable company as far as democracy and justice is concerned, is it?

While the human rights commissions in our neighbouring countries are speaking up for us, are we going to remain voiceless and spineless and not speak up for ourselves?

We need to make our voices heard that we, too, want and need a national human rights commission in Singapore and that the ASEAN human rights commission must not be restricted to just women’s, children’s and migrant workers’ rights. It must include basic human rights such as the political freedoms of each and every citizen of the country.

We need to start working on this matter and there are opportunities in the near future where we can make our voices heard.

For a start, I will organise a public forum where all of us can come together to discuss this matter at greater length. It is time that we started work on making a Singapore Human Rights Commission a reality.

All these years, Singaporeans have been very quiet on this front. There have been National Working Groups pushing for human rights in ASEAN but as you can see from here
http://www.aseanhrmech.org/, Singapore is conspicuously absent.

As a result, the regional community thinks we are not interested in human rights and that there are no serious human rights violations in this country.

In attendance at the workshop from Singapore was Mr Sinapan Samydorai of the Think Centre; Ms Braema Mathi, former NMP; Mr Michael Cheok, Vice-chairman, International Relations Committee, Singapore Business Federation and I.

The human rights situation in Singapore was not mentioned during the discussions. As an observer my role was restricted. I did, however, voice my concerns during the breaks in between that our country’s civil society would be interested in getting more involved in the process of setting up an ASEAN human rights commission.

I also talked about some of the actions the Government was taking against activists working for democratic change here.

Surprisingly or not, Singapore was the only country that did not send a government representative to the workshop. Is this a glimpse of the Singapore Government’s stand on this issue?

I also sought the support of the existing national human rights commissions in Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia in our efforts to establishing such an institution of our own.

And in case you’re wondering what the international community thinks of all this, the workshop while hosted by the Philippines Foreign Affairs Department and the Commission for Human Rights of the Philippines, was sponsored by the Canadian International Development Agency, Germany’s Friedrich Naumann Foundation, and the European Commission.

See you all soon.

M Ravi is a Singaporean lawyer and has been involved in several civil rights issues and cases including the legality of the mandatory death penalty in Singapore.

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