Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Asean Human Rights Moves More Talk Than Action

The Irrawaddy News
November 24, 2008

As the Asean summit draws closer, it has become crystal clear that the state will continue to reign supreme in the overall scheme of things in this regional grouping. On the eve of the Asean Charter entering into force on December 15, loud noises have been heard non-stop on the inevitability of making Asean a people-oriented community, especially in the area of promotion and protection of human rights. In reality, however, it remains a distant dream. Following the charter's enforcement, the most important mechanism that Asean will establish by the end of next year is an Asean human rights body (AHRB)—that much the ministers have agreed to. After all, the proposed body still does not have an official name.

The members of the High Level Panel (HPL) still have to deliberate on the appropriate name. The first draft of the terms of reference (TOR) was completed at the recent meeting in Bali and will be ready within weeks for consideration of the foreign ministerial meeting ahead of the summit in Chiang Mai. The content and mandate of this body is still under negotiation and it is going to be tough.

During the 4th roundtable discussion on human rights in Asean last week, Sihasak Phuangketkeow, the HPL chairperson, said human rights promotion and protection would be an evolutionary process given the differences of Asean members' diversities, stages of developments and political awareness. All Asean members, he reiterated, understand the importance of setting up an Asean human rights body as the world is watching closely.

"We have to deal with the reality—the region's diversity. But we are part of the global community. There are certain norms and standards on human rights that we have to observe and respect and promote. The Asean human rights body must conform to international standards and norms. Otherwise, we will not credible," he said.

Sihasek, who is currently the Thai envoy to the UN Permanent Representative in Geneva, expressed the hope that Asean members would be willing to engage the human rights body that would create moral clouts beyond the current mandate.

As the HLP is touching up the first TOR draft, several issues remain contentious. Asean human rights experts and civil society groups want the human rights body to give equal treatment to promotion and protection and make the mechanism more participatory. They have cried foul over the attempt to use the non-interference principle in the field of human rights. They argued that any violation of human rights within Asean should not be tolerated and the non-interference principle should not be used as a pretext for this.

Their question is: How can Asean as an organization promote its cooperation for the protection of human rights, when all member countries agree that the primary responsibility and jurisdiction in protecting human rights is with the governments.

According to a human rights scholar Dr Sriprapha Petcharamesree of Mahidol University, the proposed Asean human rights body is actually focused on promotion more than protection. The TOR has made 12 recommendations on human rights promotion and a few ideas for protection.

Apparently, the HLP members were more comfortable with the promotion activities such as raising awareness through various means such as education and capacity building and technical cooperation. Civil society groups want a mechanism that has a broad-ranging power to compile, investigate and write reports on the human rights situation in Asean member states. Given the current global financial crisis, they expected there would be more cases of violation of human rights that Asean needs to address.

Admitting that the Asean human rights body is not a panacea for all problems of rights violations, Sihasek expressed the hope that when the members reach the comfort level, human rights protection would be forthcoming.

"They would be more open to request for information, open to information sharing and engage in human rights with each other," he said.

Being the last region in the world to have a human rights mechanism, these civil society groups hope that Asean can draw valuable lessons from other regional organizations that have already established comprehensive human rights protection mechanisms such as in Europe, Africa, North and Latin America.

Within Asean, only Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines are more enthusiastic about a more liberal human rights body.

For instance, they want to have members of the human rights body coming directly from an electoral process. But the rest of Asean members preferred government nominated persons, who are official or otherwise but they have to be "impartial".

As the Asean chair, Thailand could have done a lot better to improve the TOR but for the present political impasse that has produced undignified and ineffective leaders.

Taken together, they have diminished the country's overall bargaining power on all Asean-related issues. Worse, due to the government's incompetence and lack of urgency, as it stands now, Thailand might not be able to co-sign the over two-dozen Asean documents planned at the summit. Both Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat and Foreign Minister Sompong Amornwiwat must take the blame.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is Assistant Group Editors of Thailand's English daily The Nation and this article appeared in The Nation on Monday.

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