Asean human rights body should prompt guarded optimism

The Irrawaddy
01 Aug 07

Caution is needed before celebrating the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ decision to form a human rights commission.

In fact, any functioning rights body remains a long way off. Asean will have to reach a consensus to include the proposed commission in its new charter in November. That process could likely face Asean’s well-known practice of foot-dragging, many analysts and editorialists have warned.

The move to form a human rights commission met with strong objections from the regional bloc’s most problematic member, Burma.

The country’s military leaders reportedly instructed the Burmese delegation at the Asean foreign ministers meeting in Manila this week to oppose the formation of a rights body and as well as any provision in the charter that would allow sanctions and punishment of Asean members.

Burma’s strong objection is understandable. The country’s prisons are full of political prisoners. According to Amnesty International, about 1,100 political prisoners have been serving long jail terms in Burma while the regime continues to harass activists and civil society groups inside the country.

A week before the Asean meeting, Myint Naing, a human rights defender in Henzeda Township, was sentenced to eight years in prison for “inciting unrest.”
Before their detention, Myint Naing and several colleagues were severely beaten by pro-regime thugs. The crime? They were conducting human rights training among villagers in Henzeda.

Five villagers who were arrested along with Myint Naing also received four-year prison sentences. Myint Naing and his colleagues now join the growing number of political detainees in Burma’s gulag.

More bad news is in the pipeline. There have been reports that the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has been barred from visiting prisons since 2005, may pull out of Burma soon.

The ICRC closed down some of its offices outside Rangoon this year, citing restrictions imposed by the regime. Now, there are unconfirmed reports that the ICRC may close its Rangoon office due to further restrictions that have made the organization incapable of fulfilling its mandate.

Threats of arrest, detentions and the intimidation of activists still working in Rangoon are on the rise, according to 88 Generation Students Group.

This news coincidences with reports that Burmese authorities recently cleared the main jail in Insein Prison—a sign that the regime may put more pressure on dissidents and, if they face resistance, may be ready to make even more arrest in the coming months.

While Burma has audaciously objected to the proposed human rights commission, some Asean members have expressed doubt about whether the regional bloc could really implement such a body.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said he does not expect discussions for the establishment of the commission to be easy but stressed that the regional grouping has already taken an important first step.

“From the start, we thought it’s going to be a very thorny issue, a difficult issue,” he told a press conference in Manila.

“This is the first step,” he added. “The next step is getting it formed. Let us cross the bridge when we come to it. I’m not saying that it is easy.”

As it is, members of the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar [Burma] Caucus cautiously welcomed Asean’s agreement to create a regional human rights commission, but they expressed doubt about the impact such a body might have on human rights in Burma.

“If what we have in mind is a meaningful human rights mechanism, then it should have a minimum of powers to ensure that all Asean governments uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Lim Kit Siang, the chairman of the Malaysian opposition Democratic Action Party and a member of the Malaysian Parliament, told The Irrawaddy. “Unless such human rights law can be upheld, then the human rights mechanism for Asean would not be meaningful.”

The decision to set up a human rights commission is just a preliminary step toward the creation of the rights body. Many obstacles to its actual creation lie ahead.

Authoritarian rulers in the region will not welcome the creation of a human rights commission, but the citizens of Asean countries will embrace it as a forum for the numerous untold stories they have to share

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