Regional human rights body with teeth or paper tiger

Marwaan Macan-Markar
02 Aug 07

At first glance, it appeared that South-east Asian governments were determined to strengthen the language of human rights across the region. A meeting of foreign ministers in Manila declared that a regional rights body would be part of a new charter for the 10-member bloc to be approved at a summit in November.

But on closer scrutiny, human rights groups and members of opposition parties say that the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) will have to spell out the powers of such an entity if this initiative to be taken seriously. Such details have yet to be worked out, officials at the ongoing ASEAN ministerial meeting in the Philippines capital told the press.

“They need to give this human rights body investigating powers to look at violations committed in any ASEAN country and to have powers to seek corrective measures,” says Basil Fernando, executive director of the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), a non-governmental watchdog. “There must also be a proper mechanism in place for victims to submit complaints for the commission to investigate.”

These features will be hard to sidestep, since the ASEAN human rights body will be judged by the standards set by similar regional commissions created elsewhere, he explained during a telephone interview from Hong Kong, where the AHRC is based. “There are regional human rights bodies in Africa and South America that have powers to investigate and more.”

“Civil society groups who have long campaigned for such a body will follow the events over the next few months as ASEAN gives shape to this regional human rights commission,” Debbie Stothard, head of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (ALTSEAN), a regional rights lobby, told IPS. “It is too early to cheer because the creation of the commission for now seems to be more like an agreement of a policy to do so.”

The governments should know that “even a paper tiger will not be able to cover up the glaring human rights violations in the region,” she added, referring to language common in South-east Asia to describe laws that sound strong on paper but are weak in application. “Human rights even in the more progressive ASEAN countries leave a lot to be desired,” Stothard said.

Typical among them is Singapore, the most affluent ASEAN member, which will be hosting the bloc’s annual summit in November. The new rights body is due to be confirmed as part of ASEAN’s first regional charter. Opposition political figures — for whom a human rights commission is important in the wake of regular harassment –have not been included in discussions to create this new mechanism.

“The opposition and civil society groups in Singapore are concerned because their views were not sought regards the commission,” Chee Siok Chin, a ranking member of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), said in a telephone interview from the city-state. “We have only heard the views from the establishment.”

Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia were the original members of ASEAN, set up 40 years ago to strengthen regional economic ties and act as a bulwark against the spread of communism in the region. Of them, Indonesia currently tops the list of nations advancing on the human rights and democracy fronts. Malaysia and Singapore, by contrast, have governments known for authoritarian features, where freedom of expression is regularly under threat or non-existent.

The members who joined since 1967 are Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. With the exception of Cambodia, these countries do not offer space for political and civil liberties. Brunei has an absolute monarchy, while Laos and Vietnam are under the grip of communist parties since the mid-1970s.

It is military-ruled Burma, admitted to ASEAN a decade ago, that looms as the test-case to measure how meaningful the new regional rights body is. “The human rights violations in Burma should be among the first cases the new commission should investigate,” says AHRC’s Fernando. “It is a good test case, because Burma ranks as one of the human rights violators on the global scale.”
Former Burmese political prisoners drew ASEAN’s attention on a related front Monday, when they said that the very day the agreement for the new human rights body was approved, Jul. 30, the Burmese junta cracked down on human rights activists in the country.

A private teacher was sentenced to three years imprisonment and fined because “he let members of Human Rights Defenders and Promoters have a human rights training at his place,” according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

Burma is holding more than 1,100 political prisoners, has placed under house arrest for over 11 years the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and has crushed all signs of dissent for years. The junta has also gained notoriety for using rape as a weapon of war against minority communities, commandeering thousands into slave-like forced labour camps and prevented international humanitarian groups aiding the weak.

Such abuse has been known by the other ASEAN governments, who opted to defend Burma from international criticism after it joined the bloc in 1997. But since 2003, the spirit of cordiality began to fray, as ASEAN was taken to task by the European Union, the U.S. government and at international summits for permitting the oppression in Burma.

Led by Malaysia, originally a major supporter of Burma’s membership into the bloc, ASEAN governments turned the heat on their recalcitrant neighbour.

This week’s announcement to create a regional rights body confirmed ASEAN’s temperament towards the military regime. “ASEAN had shielded the Burmese military from international criticism in the past, but the regime has become a source of shame and embarrassment. They cannot do it anymore,” Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst living in exile, told IPS. “Burma has to accept the changes.”

The Burmese people will benefit if the new rights commission proves to be independent and effective, he added. “People are arrested there for small things which would be taken for granted in other countries — even for having a suspicious look — due to the draconian laws.

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