Prof Tommy Koh highlights Asean’s human rights divide

In this report, Today summarises the key points made by Prof Tommy Koh, Transport Minister Raymond Lim and Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, at the 7th Workshop held on June 12-13, 2008 in Singapore.

13 June 2008

Asean’s human rights divide

Nazry Bahrawi

IT IS no secret the 10 members of the A:ssociation of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) aredivided over the issue of human rights. But it was only yesterday that a clearer picture of the rift emerged, thanks to a “frank” account given by veteran diplomat Professor Tommy Koh.

According to him, Asean is divided into two camps: One which champions human rights and the other, not as enthusiastic about it.

The first group comprises countries with national human rights commissions — Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand. The second is made up of cautious states such as Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Straddling between these two camps are “neutral” Singapore and Brunei, acting as a “bridge builder” during discussions on human rights, said Prof Koh, Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large. He was speaking to some 70 delegates at a regional workshop organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs yesterday.

Also present was Second Minister for Foreign Affairs Raymond Lim, who, in his keynote address, outlined three considerations as Asean move ahead on with plans to set up a human rights commission.

The latter must be supported by all members, adopt an evolutionary stand as views on rights are “contested concepts” and not commit itself to a fixed deadline so the grouping will have more time to focus on creating a “credible and meaningful” body, said Mr Lim.

The forming of the commission comes under the Asean Charter, which was adopted last year at the grouping’s summit in Singapore but yet to be ratified by five members.

Prof Koh, who was among those involved in drafting the Charter, said members could not agree on three issues related to the proposed commission:

# Whether it should have the power to investigate and monitor the human rights situation in member countries.

# Whether it should consider not just rights but alsoresponsibilities.

# How to reconcile the principle of human rights with that of non-interference.

Prof Koh said that where the issue of rights and responsibilites are concerned, he belongs to the camp that wants the proposed commission to consider both.

Citing an example, he said: “I believe in the freedom of speech but … also believe we have a responsibility not to use free speech to engender hatred between ethnic communities and religions.”

As for the problem in reconciling the principle of human rights with that of non-inteference, he pointed to the example of Myanmar after it was hit by Cyclone Nargis last month.

“Do the rest of the Asean family have the right to say … that the principle of human rights is more important than the principle of non-interference and that we can invoke this principle … to be more welcoming of foreign assistance … or is it still not acceptable to the Asean family?” he asked.

The differences within Asean on the issue were also reflected at the workshop yesterday.

In his speech earlier, Asean Secretary-General Surin :Pitsuwan had argued that human rights in the Asean context are no different from those in the universal context. But Prof Koh noted that some Asean officials would disagree with Dr Surin’s view.

Prof Koh also said that Dr Surin’s wish for members of the human rights commission to be “free agents” differs from the foreign ministers’ agreement that the body is to be staffed by “representatives of government”.

The ministers, Prof Koh added, had also agreed on three other areas related to the commission: It will not be a “finger-pointing” body; will take into account the histories and circumstances of member states; and lastly, represent Asean in international forums.

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