Asean must move on human rights

Pokpong Lawansiri
Asean logoBangkok Post

The Asean human rights body now in its formative stages should not be merely a window dressing mechanism; it should be able to carry out significant monitoring, investigation, and protection work, and should be empowered to conduct fact-finding missions and access human rights victims

As the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) develops into a more cohesive and effective inter-governmental body following the signing of the Asean Charter in November last year, human rights groups are observing keenly the development of the Asean human rights body (AHRB).

In the 41st Asean Ministerial Meeting (AMM), being held in Singapore until Thursday, July 24, Asean will appoint the High Level Panel (HLP) that will be responsible for drafting the terms of reference (TOR) of the AHRB.

The structure of the panel, with one member from each of the ten Asean states, is expected to be similar to the High Level Task Force (HLTF), which was in charge of the drafting of the Asean Charter. The HLTF came under heavy criticism from civil society groups as it was not very open to their input.

As of now all Asean governments should have selected their representatives to the HLP, although at this writing it is not known for certain who these representatives are. For Thailand, Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, a renowned Chulalongkorn University human rights law expert and a UN Special Investigator on human rights in North Korea, is speculated to be on the panel.

Some countries may not select representatives according to the chief criterion of human rights expertise. The CMLV bloc (Cambodia, Myanmar/Burma, Laos, and Vietnam), who are seen to be less open to human rights, and indeed may view the issue as a non-Asean concept, are expected to appoint bureaucrats to lay the guidelines for the AHRB.

As Asean continues its debate to reach a common human rights concept as the basis of the AHRB, organisations such as the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (Southeast Asia Office) insists that its foundation should be laid according to international human rights standards.

Human rights defenders (HRDs) in Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, and Burma (Thai-Burmese border) that have engaged in comprehensive national consultations held by the Civil Society Task Force on Asean and Human Right, a network of national and regional human rights organisations in Asean, have also concluded that the composition of the HLP and the AHRB once it is set up should consist of independent human rights experts, and not merely civil servants who lack the appropriate background.

The AHRB should not be merely a window dressing mechanism; it should be able to carry out significant monitoring, investigation, and protection work, and should be empowered to conduct fact-finding missions and access human rights victims.

It should also prioritise and ensure that the indivisibility and universality of human rights principles will be emphasised. These include the inseparable links between civil, political with economic, social, and cultural rights.

Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan challenged Asean’s cultural relativism principle during a two-day 7th Workshop on Asean Regional Human Rights Mechanism held in Singapore from 12-13 June, 2008 by the Working Group for an Asean Human Rights Mechanism, the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, and the Singaporean Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Mr Surin said that Asean has to “look back at our roots, in the documents of our civilisations, to see if we really have different definitions of human rights”. He believed that historically there has always been a similar definition of the worth of human beings and human rights in all Asean civilisations, which in a way delegitimises the argument of an “Asean way” that sees human rights as a foreign concept.

As all Asean countries are members of the UN, with the Philippines and Malaysia being represented in the prestigious UN Human Rights Council, Asean countries should refrain from exhibiting such an outdated stance.

Human rights advocates are not calling for the invention of new standards, but want to ensure that the AHRB is guided by standards that all Asean countries, as well as the international community, can agree upon, like the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1993 Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, and other international human rights treaties.

Most importantly, Asean officials should not rest on their laurels and continue to say that this Asean Charter is a milestone document as it includes an Asean human rights body. In the eyes of Asean observers, although the development is welcomed, Asean needs to accelerate its development by setting up a long-term timeline for the future.

It should be noted that Asean is the only regional body that has yet to establish a human rights mechanism. Our African, American and European counterparts have had functioning regional human rights mechanisms for decades, such as the European Court of Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the African Commission for Human and People’s Rights.

At the 26th Asean Ministerial Meeting in Singapore in 1993 the foreign ministers reaffirmed Asean’s commitment to and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms as set out in the Vienna Declaration, and agreed that Asean should coordinate a common approach on human rights and actively participate and contribute to the application, promotion and protection of human rights.

A communique from the 26th AMM states that the ministers “agreed that Asean should consider the establishment of an appropriate regional mechanism on human rights.” Yet in the intervening 15 years little progress has been made.

In fact, Asean UN members agreed to establish a regional human rights protection mechanism as far back as December 1977, almost 21 years ago, when the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 32/127, which says “…in areas where regional (mechanisms) in the field of human rights do not exist (states should) consider agreements with a view to the establishment (of) … suitable regional machinery for the promotion and protection of human rights.”

In view of this, Asean must now set up the mechanisms for human rights protection in a timely manner and should not delay the establishment of the AHRB any longer.

However, in speeding up the process, Asean must ensure broad participation and transparency through regular and systemised consultations with human rights organisations and civil society groups at both national and regional levels.

Dr Surin Pitsuwan stated clearly at the workshop that in order to make Asean a “people’s centred” regional organisation, as highlighted in the Asean Charter, the HLP must operate under the principle of rule of law and good governance and must reflect “the people’s aspirations, expectations, and dreams”.

We hope that soon the victims of human rights violations in Burma, Southern Thailand, West Papua, Mindanao, or elsewhere in Asean, will see the creation of a human rights mechanism which will assist them in achieving their aspirations through the promotion and protection of their basic rights as human beings.

Pokpong Lawansiri is a Southeast Asia Programme Officer with the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia), which serves as the secretariat for the Task Force on Asean and Human Rights.

ASEAN ministers urge Burma to release Suu Kyi
Radio Australia

Aung San Suu Kyi

ASEAN foreign ministers have expressed deep disappointment over the extension of the house arrest of Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

In Singapore for their annual meeting, the foreign ministers called for Ms Suu Kyi’s release and that of other political detainees, as part of Burma’s national reconciliation process.

The 10 member bloc also urged the Burmese junta to engage with Aung San Suu Kyi’s movement, which has been frozen out of a much-criticised “roadmap to democracy”.

Singapore’s foreign minister, George Yeo, says the association has also called on the Burmese junta to give UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari access to senior leaders and opposition figures so he can help the country move forward.

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