Asean human rights clause falters

Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Nation
30 Jul 07

Asean ministers meet on Monday in bid to find mechanism

Asean charter drafters decided to defer the contentious issue of human rights to a decision of their foreign ministers who meet formally today.

The drafters failed to reach common ground on the creation of a mechanism to protect human rights.

Following marathon discussions, the drafters, headed by retired Philippines diplomat Rosario Manalo, agreed to advance the proposed formulation to Asean foreign ministers for determination over adopting a body, organ or commission “to promote and protect human rights of the people in Asean”, according to highly placed sources.

“Asean foreign ministers have to decide whatever instrument or name to be used,” said one of the sources, who asked not to be named for protocol reasons.

As it turned out, the word “mechanism” – widely used in the news media and among civil society organisations – has been completely ignored.

The taboo word is often referred to in discussing Asean’s failed attempt to establish a regional human-rights apparatus in 1993 in Bangkok. Little progress has been made since then, except on issues and rights related to women and children as well as migrant workers.

Core Asean members Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand view a human-rights commission as an important pillar in constructing an Asean community in compliance with the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

Asean leaders agreed to set up security, economic, social and cultural communities by 2015. The security community explicitly states Asean must promote human rights.

Burma objected to the establishment of a regional human-rights body. Since its admission in 1997, its membership has proved an embarrassment for Asean. The grouping has had to defend its track record of political suppression and the use of child labour.

The first clean charter draft – to be vetted by the foreign ministers today at their formal meeting and retreat – will be incomplete.

The drafters still have to meet several more times to wrap up remaining chapters.

The Asean Charter has 12 chapters dealing with the whole gamut of transforming Asean into a legally binding organisation. They have settled all,  including the preamble, except one. Chapter four is the outstanding portion and deals with the Asean organisation. Drafters need more time to make revisions following any additional comments made by the foreign ministers today.

So far, they have agreed on three principal organs – the Asean Summit, Asean Executive Board and Secretary-General of Asean and its secretariat.

An Asean Committee of Permanent Representatives, the status of the Asean Foundation and the Asean Institute are among the issues still to be discussed.

The ministers will meet again at the end of September in New York when they attend the UN General Assembly. They will vet the revision before sending a final draft to leaders for their deliberation.

Under the proposed charter, they will meet twice annually instead of once currently.

The Asean Executive Board – that will coordinate the three corresponding ministerial councils on security, economics and society and culture – will assist leaders.

The Asean leaders are expected to sign the charter at their summit in mid-November, hosted by Singapore.

The charter-drafting committee includes mostly senior foreign-ministry officials from members countries with five senior officials, two Asean directors-general and two ambassadors-at-large and Manalo.