Asean human rights body: Progress made, but more work lies ahead

This is the Straits Times’ concluding report on the 7th Workshop, held June 12 – 13, 2008 in Singapore.

Straits Times
14 June 2008

Progress made, but more work lies ahead

Workshop participants agree broad consultation needed, but no consensus reached on powers proposed body should have
By Kor Kian Beng

ASEAN’S goal of setting up a human rights body is shaping up well, but human rights experts and government officials who ended a meeting here were under no illusions about the mountain of work that lies ahead.

The 60 or so participants who met at a two-day workshop agreed, among other things, that the high-level panel which will draw up terms of reference for the human rights commission must consult broadly with government and civil society groups alike.

But there were the inevitable sticking points as well, noted Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) chairman Simon Tay. The SIIA hosted the workshop with the Regional Working Group for an Asean Human Rights Mechanism, a coalition of human rights groups from across Asean.

Associate Professor Tay said participants had not reached consensus on issues such as the powers that the new body should have. Some want it to be able to investigate, assess and go on fact- finding missions in member-countries.

‘Others think we should start modestly with powers to promote and monitor human rights and to comment on the human rights records of Asean members,’ he added.

The participants also wondered if the body should be staffed by government officials or independent rights experts – or a mixture of both.

Another issue where there was no consensus, was whether the new body should be set up only when the 10 Asean members are on board.

While that was the view of most participants, others felt the body should be first established with a ‘coalition of the willing’.

Such issues underlined the complexity surrounding the establishment of such a regional body – an idea that Asean foreign ministers agreed to consider when they met here in 1993.

Said Dr Budiono Kusumo of the Indonesian Working Group: ‘It can be frustrating that these issues continue to surface after years of discussions. But it’s understandable as we’re dealing with views from different cultures and political systems.’

The workshop’s recommendations will be sent to the high-level panel when Asean foreign ministers meet here next month. The panel is likely to decide on the terms of reference by year-end.

Although there has been no timeline set for the establishment of the new rights body, Dr Sriprapha Petcharamesree of Thailand’s Working Group said there were positive signs of progress – including the fact that such a workshop could be held here.

Participants also pointed to areas where consensus had been reached over the two days.

Changing mindsets was a case in point, said Malaysia’s representative Param Cumaraswamy, pointing to Asean’s ability to get fellow- member Myanmar to open up to foreign aid in the aftermath of the recent cyclone tragedy.

Participants also said the new human rights body should not be set up at the expense of Asean’s other new initiatives on human rights.

These include a commission on the rights of women and children, and a declaration signed in January last year to protect migrant workers’ rights.

Said Ms Braema Mathi, who chairs Singapore’s Working Group: ‘Plenty of work has gone into these areas, which could be useful for the setting up of the Asean human rights body.’

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