Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Human Rights in Asean: a Struggle Going Nowhere?

The Irrawaddy News

The 42nd Asean Ministerial Meeting (AMM) that has just concluded in Phuket, Thailand, might bring up the question of whether Asean (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is able to transform itself into an organization capable of effectively addressing the human rights issues in the region.

Asean’s image as a “governments’ club” continues to be questioned amidst claims by its top officials that it wants to be more “people-oriented.”

After long months of continued engagement with the High Level Panel on the establishment of the Asean human rights body (HLP) by an Asean-based civil society network of more than 60 human rights organizations across the region, many civil society actors and Asean observers are faced with the question of whether engagement on the thorny issue of human rights within Asean is actually bearing fruit or is simply destined to be a barren struggle.

When the HLP—a 12-member panel tasked by Asean’s foreign ministers to come up with the terms of reference (TOR) on the Asean human rights body—released its first statement in July 2008 in Singapore, it said it was “important to engage with Asean civil society in [its] work.”

Asean civic groups were consequently hopeful that the regional body would finally accept the principle of participatory democracy and good governance after all these years of pressuring and lobbying.

From July 2008 to July 2009, the civic groups submitted documents from dozens of national and regional conferences demanding that Asean install the mandates for the human rights mechanism in order to facilitate fact-finding investigations, receive complaints from human rights victims and organizations, and conduct reviews on the human rights situation in the member countries.

These demands were also put forward in the meetings with the HLP in the regional interface between the HLP and civil society groups in Manila in September 2008, and then in Kuala Lumpur in March 2009.

The final TOR of the Asean Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICOHR), adopted by the Asean foreign ministers on 20th July in Phuket, does not, however, honor such recommendations from the key stakeholder.

While the Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who is currently Asean chairman, recently rebutted the criticisms on the AICOHR by saying that the body serves twin purposes of promoting and protecting human rights, it should be noted that the mandate in the final TOR that was made public by the Asean Secretariat was mainly on the promotional side. It advocated raising human rights awareness and providing services concerning human rights to Asean’s sectoral bodies. There was no such article mentioning any form of redress or action by AICOHR if a member state conducted human rights violations.

“We are disappointed to see that the final version of the TOR is less than the minimum credibility of protection mandate,” said Rafendi Djamin, the convener of the SAPA Task Force on Asean, at a press conference. “For any regional human rights commission to function effectively, it at least must have a minimum protection mandate such as conducting country visits to areas of human rights violations,” he added.

While Asean officials may praise themselves for taking such a progressive leap on this initiative, we must also take note that Asean falls far behind Europe, Africa and the Americas with regard to the creation of a similar mechanism.

The other regions have not only set up commissions capable of conducting investigations into human rights violations for decades, they have also implemented human rights courts, namely the European Court of Human Rights (set up in 1959), the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (1979), and the African Court for Human and Peoples’ Rights (2004).

The discussion for creating an Asean Court for Human Rights in the future, something civil society groups long for, is a taboo subject among Asean’s policymakers.

To Watshlah Naidu, a women’s rights advocate with the International Women’s Rights Action Watch, Asean needs a reality check. “Asean is a region that is packed with series of human rights violations ranging from extrajudicial executions and women’s rights being violated through labor exploitation, trafficking and sexual exploitation,” said Naidu.

Most importantly, Asean continues to be unable to resolve the worsening human rights crisis in Burma, an Asean member since 1997 that has created a refugee crisis in Southeast Asia.

With the existing weak TOR, how can Asean seek to improve the plight of the ethnic nationalities that are continually oppressed by the Burmese military regime and the continuing detention of more than 2,000 political prisoners including the never-ending detention of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Asean must act to ensure that human rights can be effectively protected.

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