ASEAN: Creation of a Human Rights Body

The Bangkok Post recently commented on the proposed ASEAN Human Rights Body, see below.


Toothless in infancy, but the victory is in being born

How will you see the situation in Burma, where the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is facing the possibility of a five-year prison term? That will be the first litmus test for the new human rights body.

Published: 16/07/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: News

Thailand, as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is calling for a ”launch first and shape up later” approach to establishing the region’s first ever human rights body. The idea is shared by many members of civil society.

The Asean Ministerial Meeting in Phuket next week will discuss and endorse the terms of reference (ToR), which have been prepared during the past year by a high-level panel on an Asean human rights body, amid challenges marked by negotiation and compromise.

After the Phuket meeting, each Asean member will select and appoint their respective representative who shall serve for a term of three years. The list of 10 representatives, so-called commissioners (if the proposed name of Commission is adopted next week), will hopefully be ready for the Asean summit in October, when the formal launch of this new mechanism will be held.

The establishment of the regional human rights body may sound like music to many people’s ears, given the less-than-friendly attitude some members have had towards one another for decades, and how the idea has been considered a taboo subject, an influence from the West rather than a home-grown culture, among Southeast Asian governments.

However, the melody has turned sour for many human rights activists as the new body has taken shape. A lack of the much-wanted protection functions in the new body has caused much dismay. These include the authority to carry out country visits, to receive complaints of human rights violations and initiate investigations or to conduct periodic reviews of the human rights situation in Asean member states, like in the case of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Param Cumaraswamy, a member of the working group for an Asean human rights mechanism (a mix of NGOs and academics with Asean’s official track), said at the prelude workshop in Bangkok this week that civil society, the working group included, and even some governments would have preferred a much stronger, a more balanced human rights body than what the imminent one will most likely be.

”We would have preferred a ToR document that is more legal than political in nature. However, the working group has decided to adopt a constructive, consultative and step-by-step process involving governments and civil society groups in the longer term,” Dato Param said.

Termsak Chalermpalanupap, the Asean Secretariat’s director of political and security cooperation, gave an honest opinion.

Whether people call the ToR a legal or political document, it was in fact a bureaucratic document _ drafted by civil servants appointed by the Asean governments, he said.

After all, the new body will be an organ inside the organisational structure of Asean.

”It was never intended to be any ‘independent watchdog’, much less to be anything with ‘sharp teeth’,” said Mr Termsak.

The new body will operate through consultation and consensus, with respect for sovereign equality of all member states, he noted.

Homayoun Alizadeh, the regional representative of the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, stayed on the positive side, saying the new body would at least mean there would be a sub-regional human rights mechanism in Asia _ the only continent to lack one. He emphasised that the crucial step for the new body rested upon the modality and selection process of the commissioners.

”The national selection process of prospective commissioners must be impartial and credible, with close consultation with the civil societies,” said Mr Alizadeh.

Chulalongkorn University law professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, also alternate member of Thailand to the ToR-drafting high-level panel, cautioned that the proposed name of the new body, the Asean Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights” and the whole ToR, had yet to be accepted at the Phuket meeting.

From a human rights perspective, Mr Vitit noted that Asean must realise that it was the ”human rights of the peoples, not the states” that are the focus.

Despite the flak, Mr Vitit said the protection element, which is the main concern for NGOs, was covered in the ToR implicitly rather than explicitly.

”Yes, it will be a consensus-based body, but let’s hope that it will become less bureaucratic. We still need a creative interpretation of the future body, which has to prove itself that it will be active, accessible and responsive to earn some credibility,” Mr Vitit said.

He suggested also that we must not forget that the new body is not the only tool enshrined in the Asean charter adopted in December last year for the promotion and protection of human rights in the region.

”The body can’t have exclusive jurisdiction on human rights. Civil society, the secretary-general, the Councils of the Three Pillars (political, economic, and social ministers) and the summits are also the venues to work out the issues,” he said.

To him, the next strategic move for all concerned would be to prepare the national selection process well, so that the new body could act impartially and credibly with some integrity.

Rafendi Rafendi Djamin, from the Convenor of Solidarity for Asian People’s Advocacy Task Force on Asean and Human Rights, agreed that the independence and professionalism of the Asean representatives in the human rights body were very crucial.

But Charm Tong, a member of the advocacy team of the Shan Women’s Action Network, said she regretted having only a soft mechanism to deal with such a Goliath issue like human right abuses in Burma.

”I thank those who have helped push the region this far with the present ToR but I beg that the scale of brutality and human rights degradation as well as the real impact of the present situation in Burma must be weighed in for the launching of the regional human rights commission. Otherwise, the people and victims of the rights abuses will benefit less from the emerging regional bureaucracy,” said Ms Charm Tong.

Soe Aung, a spokesman of the in-exile National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB), said the new human rights body would never be effective unless and until it can address the issue of political prisoners in Burma.

”How will you see the situation there, where the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is facing the possibility of a five-year prison term? That will be the first litmus test for the new human rights body,” said Mr Soe Aung.

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