MFA reply on ASEAN Human Rights Body

See below for the written reply by Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo to Mr Siew Kum Hong’s parliamentary question on Singapore’s position on the ASEAN Human Rights Body.

(for the Sitting on 23 March 2009)

(Singapore’s Position)

*25. Mr Siew Kum Hong:
To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs (a) what is Singapore’s position on the draft terms of reference for the proposed ASEAN Human Rights Body; and (b) what is the progress of the work of the High Level Panel.

Mr George Yong-Boon Yeo:
I thank Mr Siew Kum Hong for his interest in the ASEAN human rights body. This is an important subject. Let me emphasise that Singapore is firmly committed to the establishment of an ASEAN human rights body.

The High Level Panel (HLP) that is drafting the Terms of Reference (TOR) for the proposed ASEAN human rights body has completed a first draft of the TOR. This was presented to the ASEAN Foreign Ministers for comments at the sidelines of the 14th ASEAN Summit in Cha-Am, Thailand, on 27 Feb 2009. The final Terms of Reference is expected to be endorsed by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers at the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in July 2009. At Cha-Am, the Foreign Ministers also agreed that the ASEAN human rights body should be launched by the ASEAN Leaders at the 15th ASEAN Summit in Thailand in October 2009.

To meet the deadline, the HLP will now have to reconcile and incorporate the Ministers’ comments into the TOR. This will not be straightforward as the comments by the Foreign Ministers reflected the diversity of ASEAN. This diversity is a political reality that cannot be wished away. Some ASEAN Member States preferred a body which is less intrusive because they believe that Western countries and NGOs might manipulate it to interfere in their domestic politics. Others made the opposite argument, that a robust and credible human rights body will help us address this issue on our own terms.

I do not want to prejudge the HLP’s work. But I am not pessimistic. Only a few years ago no one could have imagined that today ASEAN would be seriously considering establishing a human rights body. The initial positions among ASEAN Member States were so polarised that some of us then did not dare to believe that Article 14 of the ASEAN Charter on the establishment of an ASEAN human rights body was possible. That we are today agreed that ASEAN should create such a body is thus a major step forward. So even if the HLP is unable to move the TOR forward from where we were in February, we are already better off than before.

Still, I hope the HLP will be able to improve the TOR. We will certainly try. But we should not forget that this is a very delicate negotiation where every word and every comma has been and will continue to be carefully scrutinised and debated before being agreed. The final document will be a political compromise. So it will not be a perfect document, but a document that reflects the current state of consensus on human rights in ASEAN at a particular time. But the TOR we adopt in July will not be the end of the story. We will continue to take the process forward, one step at a time. If we tried to agree on everything at the outset, we would have never even started; if one party or another tries too vigorously to shape the TOR in one direction or another, the whole process may well be derailed. We must approach this negotiation in the spirit of the physician’s motto: “First of all, do no harm”.

Therefore in dealing with this issue, ASEAN has adopted what we have called “an evolutionary approach”. At each point we will have to agree on what will be the next step, without specifying what will be our final destination for this body. The pace will not always please all observers; it may not even please all ASEAN Member States. But we all recognise that this is not a static situation and that attitudes and policies towards human rights in ASEAN will continue to develop. The ASEAN human rights body will accordingly continue to evolve.

The TOR for the ASEAN human rights body cannot, and is not intended to, exhaustively determine every single detail of ASEAN’s approach to human rights in advance. Over time, the body will have to build up its own practices and positions in a way analogous to case law. Ultimately, the effectiveness of the ASEAN human rights body will depend, not just on the TOR but on our evolution as an ASEAN Community and our growing sense of a common destiny. We hope that year by year, as we become an ever closer community, the layers and best practices that we accumulate and hold in common as ASEAN will grow. The role and stature of the ASEAN human rights body will grow in tandem with this process.

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