Asean human-rights body — taking the next step

Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Nation

In the months, if not years, to come, human rights will become a do-or-die topic that could split Asean, if it hasn’t done so already.

While civil society organisations in Asean are unhappy with the charter, they think the drafting of the terms of reference (TOR) to set up the Asean human-rights body will enable them to have their voices heard this time. They have also become more realistic working with Asean officials to come up with creditable TOR that are acceptable to all.

Singapore, the current chair of Asean, has held meetings with members of the Working Group on Human Rights about TOR. They have yet to agree on the details as it is a very tricky issue. The first one involves selecting people from Asean member countries who would then prepare the second TOR for the “yet to be identified persons or experts” who would go on to draft the TOR for the first Asean human-rights body.

The Asean chair will see to it that the first TOR are completed. Singapore will have until the third week of July to come up with the names of those in the first group. Then, the coming Asean chair, Thailand, will be responsible for the second TOR that will take care of the content of the proposed human-rights body.

The Philippines prefers human-rights experts and representatives from civil society organisations on the drafting committee, while other Asean members opt for the “usual” – senior officials – to be involved, just as they were with the charter-drafting process.

Thailand wants to do a good job drafting the TOR for the human-rights body, as the country holds the idea in high esteem. When Bangkok hosted the regional human-rights conference in 1993, it fervently supported the proposed establishment of a regional human-rights mechanism.

Since the beginning of the drafting of the Asean Charter in 2005, Thailand was adamant that the charter should be bold and forward-looking with due respect paid to the principle of democracy and human rights.

The Thai delegation’s insistence that the UN Declaration of Human Rights be included in the Asean Charter’s preamble was ignored by other drafting partners. This was partly due to the political reality that Thailand faced after the coup in September 2006. Bangkok lacked the moral authority to argue forcefully for liberal values. Thailand is facing the same dilemma again.

With the newly elected government under Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, Thailand is going back to square one. Right after Samak and Interior Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung assumed their posts, they jointly stated that the unpopular anti-drug campaign, which was terminated from 2006-2007, would resume. Both were gung-ho and made it clear that extrajudicial tactics are tolerable if they are necessary to clean up drug trafficking.

With such political rhetoric and naivete, Thailand’s already very low self-esteem and moral authority will sink further. For the upcoming chair to argue for a moral high ground and credible TOR on human rights would easily be perceived as hypocritical. When the country’s myopic leaders have openly advocated the use of force, it is hard, if not possible, to manoeuvre diplomatically and in a pacifist manner. To make matters worse, shameless comments by Samak and Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama rubbed additional salt into the wounds when they praised Burmese leaders and the political situation there.

Last week, Vietnam became the latest member to ratify the Charter, joining Singapore, Laos, Malaysia and Brunei. Thailand is expected to ratify the Charter before assuming the Asean chair. Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan told reporters in Bangkok recently that he hoped that all 10 members would ratify the charter by year’s end. “Next year will mark the historic beginning of Asean and the Asean charter,” Surin said with confidence.

Apparently, the Samak government has no idea about the charter’s implementation and its far-reaching impact on the host country and Asean members as a whole. They have so far failed to appreciate that Thailand – where Asean was founded in 1967 -would be the first member to get a crack at the Asean Charter along with a Thai at the grouping’s helm.

In addition, judging from the foreign-policy statements of Samak and Noppadon in past months, they have been clueless concerning what they would encounter and their overall responsibilities. Samak has to host several leaders’ meetings between now and December of next year: three Asean summits (one informal, two formal), two East Asian summits, two Asean Plus Three summits and numerous Asean Plus One summits.

It’s sad but true that it is not difficult to anticipate Thailand’s utter failure in pushing for more liberal TOR on human rights. As long as the current government and its leaders are in place, the hope to promote a people-centred Asean with civil society organisations as the main driving engine will also become elusive.

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