Are principles of human rights are more important than the principles of non-interference? asks Prof Tommy Koh

Article 14 of the Asean Charter may prove to be one of the most difficult to implement. Providing for a human rights body, the details have yet to be worked out. As Prof Tommy Koh said in his speech to the 7th Workshop, “There was no issue that took up more of our time, no issue as controversial and which divided the Asean family so deeply as human rights.”

Below is the Straits Times report of his speech.

Straits Times
13 June 2008

Consensus needed on human rights: Prof Koh

Difficult areas to be examined before Asean human rights body can be set up
By Kor Kian Beng

ASEAN countries need consensus on several difficult questions if an Asean human rights commission is to be set up, said Ambassador at Large Tommy Koh yesterday.

These are:

# Should the commission have powers to monitor or investigate the human rights situation in its member states?

# How should it balance between the principle of protecting human rights and that of non-interference in another country’s internal affairs?

# Should it push for a perspective on human rights that emphasises both rights and responsibilities, as opposed to rights alone?

These are questions that will confront a high-level panel when it is set up next month to draw up the terms of reference for the new body, said Professor Koh.

He cited Cyclone Nargis, which hit Myanmar early last month, as an example of a situation in which human rights clashed with Asean’s well-known principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of its members.

‘Do the rest of the Asean family have the right to say that, in extreme situations like this, principles of human rights are more important than the principles of non-interference?’ he asked.

Prof Koh was speaking yesterday at a workshop jointly organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and the Working Group for an Asean Human Rights Mechanism.

The Working Group comprises human rights groups from across Asean. Singapore is represented by Maruah (Singapore Working Committee for an Asean Human Rights Mechanism).

They will submit their recommendations at the Asean Ministerial Meeting here next month.

The high-level panel to decide terms of reference for the human rights commission will comprise representatives from all 10 Asean states. Singapore’s representative will be someone ‘very senior’ from the foreign ministry, said Prof Koh.

The panel is likely to complete its work when Bangkok hosts the Asean Summit at year end, he said.

Prof Koh noted that the same three issues divided a high-level task force set up in January last year to draft the Asean Charter. He was part of that task force.

He said: ‘There was no issue that took up more of our time, no issue as controversial and which divided the Asean family so deeply as human rights.’

There were two opposing camps. Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, four countries with their own national human rights commissions, were on one side, while Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam were on the other.

Said Prof Koh: ‘Brunei and Singapore didn’t belong to either camp and tried to play the role of bridge builders during meetings.’

Still, the task force reached a consensus on several points about the human rights commission. They agreed it would be an inter-government organisation staffed by government representatives, and it would not be accusatory in nature.

It should also define human rights in the Asean context and express these views on Asean’s behalf at international forums.

Dr Surin Pitsuwan, a former Thai foreign minister and currently Asean secretary-general, said during the same workshop that more work needs to be done to back the assumption that Asean’s definition on human rights should differ from universal standards.

He also expressed optimism that Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand, the four Asean members that have not ratified the Asean Charter, will do so before the year-end summit.

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