By Marwaan Macan-Markar
Southeast Asia is weeks away from getting its own regional human rights body, but not everyone is cheering the birth of this new mechanism due to be approved at a foreign ministers’ meeting here.
Least of all the region’s vibrant human rights community, spread across the 10 countries that belong to the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN).
In a final, desperate push to lobby for an ASEAN Human Rights Body (AHRB) with teeth, over 200 civil society organisations, activists and academics have dispatched a letter to the high-profile committee drafting the terms of reference (ToR) of the rights body to make it an “effective” mechanism.
Plans are afoot to meet some foreign ministers before they assemble for the 42nd ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in the resort island of Phuket, from Jul. 17- 23. The ministers are due to approve the ToR for the AHRB, paving the way for it to start functioning later in the year.
The countries in the regional bloc, which was formed in 1967 as a bulwark against the spread of communism, include Brunei, Burma (or Myanmar), Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Most troubling for the activists is the lack of power for this regional entity to investigate rights violations among member countries and the absence of independent human rights experts to be on the body. There is also a call for the AHRB to have regular reviews of the human rights situation in the region.
“We hear that these three demands have not been met,” says Yuyun Wahyuningrum, East Asia programme manager for FORUM-ASIA, a Bangkok- based regional rights lobby. “There is opposition from Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia. Even Singapore and Malaysia have said our demands are difficult.”
“We said this has to do with the lives of victims, in our meetings with the government officials,” she added in an interview. “The ToR is very weak and may do little to improve the human rights situation in the region.”
That is confirmed by the confidential draft text of the ToR seen by IPS. Although stating that the AHRB is being created to “promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of the peoples of ASEAN,” the language in this nine-page document is short on specific details on precise actions of the new body to protect victims of gross abuse.
There are also provisions for principles that the 42-year-old ASEAN is known for, such as “non-interference in the internal affairs of ASEAN Member states” and “respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all ASEAN Members States.”
But non-governmental organisations (NGOs) argue that when governments sign international treaties they give up an aspect of sovereignty and are open to some monitoring by the international community.
“To renege on the international human rights standards at this point would be really a shame,” says Rafendi Djamin, coordinator of Indonesia’s NGO Coalition for International Human Rights Advocacy. “This would again affirm the widespread perception that ASEAN lacks the political will to protect human rights.”
There is already a view among some activists that the AHRB is destined to fall far short of what national human rights commissions in some ASEAN countries – such as Indonesia and the Philippines – have achieved. They have strong investigation mechanisms and independent commissioners.
“The power to investigate human rights violations is the first mandate of the Philippines human rights commission,” says Cres Lucero, deputy executive director of the Manila-based Task Force Detainees of the Philippines. “It helps with a witness protection programme and is committed and has a capacity building plan.”
“The credibility of any human rights body will be judged on its power to investigate,” she added during a telephone interview from the Philippines capital. “It is disappointing that the AHRB will be weaker than the national human rights bodies.”
ASEAN’s history offers a window into understanding why the AHRB is hampered by these flaws despite the region’s charter, which came into force last December, spelling out that the need for a regional human rights mechanism was important in making the bloc a rules-based entity on the lines of the European Union.
With the exception of Indonesia and the Philippines and, to some measure Thailand, the rest of ASEAN’s members have governments that permit a limited democratic culture to ones that crush all hints of political and civil liberties. The latter are still comfortable with the concept of “Asian values” – an idea advanced by the authoritarian leaders of Malaysia and Singapore in the 1990s to justify the strong grip with which they ruled, and to deflect criticism from the West.
“The ToR for the AHRB mirrors the shortcomings of the ASEAN Charter as a whole,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “It has the politically correct concepts. But in the details, it has been diluted and is not effective.”
“The problem is that the ToR was a ‘Track One’ process like the ASEAN Charter. Only officials were involved in drafting it,” he explained to IPS. “ASEAN is full of non-democratic countries. So a ‘Track One’ process lacks legitimacy, lacks people’s participation and also ruins the purpose.”