Making AICHR work for ASEAN citizens

See below for a newspaper commentary on the new ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission for Human Rights (AICHR)
Making AICHR work for Asean citizens
By Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Nation
Published on August 31, 2009

FOR THE NEXT TWO WEEKS, Thailand will be on the look-out for an ideal person to serve as the Thai representative of the upcoming Asean Intergovernmental Commission for Human Rights (AICHR). The candidate must be willing to work for free and be keen to promote human rights in the most diverse, if not difficult, region in the world. Knowledge of Asean affairs, especially the human rights situation, a good track record of human rights protection and an excellent command of English are a must. During the three-year stint, the successful candidate will be given a free hand in managing a Bt1-million fund to support activities or plan of actions related to human rights within the country and Asean. Other expenses related to AICHR will be paid by the government.

Indonesia , Philippines and Malaysia, which have their own national human rights commissions, are expected to do the same. The remaining members would either stick to their High Level Panel (HLP) members who helped draft the AICHR terms of reference or pick a new government representative. At least half of HLP members will probably return as the commissioners. They consider themselves the gatekeepers.

Against this background, independent human rights experts are pivotal to ensure that the rights body would perform its dual functions to promote and protect human rights in balanced ways, without discrimination. A majority of Asean members preferred human rights promotion than protection – this bone of contention remains. However, at last week’s meeting between members of Asean-based civil society groups and HLP in Jakarta, both sides expressed their willingness to work together to ensure AICHR will serve the 590 million Asean citizens despite their unresolved disagreements over the terms of reference (TOR). The AICHR will need all the help it can get from all stakeholders from the formal and informal sectors.

To provide such assurance, the HLP will issue a political declaration at the Asean summit in Cha-am, Hua Hin to reiterate Asean’s political will to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to indicate Asean’s vision for the development of human rights cooperation. At the moment, quite a few HLP members have already submitted their own versions with different emphasis and twists. Last week, a coalition of 70 Asian civil society groups also released its own political declaration calling for the establishment of a regional human rights court.

Civil society groups expect the AICHR’s so-called evolutionary process would be an accelerated one and eventually incorporate all features of the existing regional mechanisms as in Europe or Africa. The TOR-AICHR will be reviewed in five years – quite a long time from non-governmental organisations’ point of view. They encourage pro-human rights Asean members to push the envelope and serve as models for other recalcitrant members to emulate through pragmatism and actions. During the painstaking deliberation, majority of HLP members refused to give mandate to the AICHR for cross-country work – receive complaints, monitor and investigate human rights abuses.

Once it is launched in October, it remains to be seen how the AICHR will proceed next year when Vietnam succeeds Thailand as the Asean chair. Vietnam has already set up a national committee for Asean Chairmanship to identify issues and objectives that Asean would like to achieve under its leadership. At the Asean summit in March, Vietnam welcomed the dialogue between the Asean leaders and civil society sectors and subsequently urged them to work out a modality for the institutionalisation of the interface. Vietnam’s plan of action will greatly impact on the relations between Asean and civil society groups as well as the future direction of human rights cooperation.

Vietnam’s huge challenge ahead will be how to cope with the growing empowerment of the people’s sector inside and in Asean. They are better equipped to articulate, monitor and lobby for issues related to Asean-wide protection of human rights and people-oriented causes. Under the Thai chair, they have been holding repeated dialogues directly with the HPL members and working with the pro-human rights Asean members. They have learned to appreciate the limits and potential of Asean and its cooperation on sensitive issues. They now have a more realistic view of Asean.

Looking ahead, certain articles of the TOR-AICHR could be used wisely to tackle sensitive issues as the commissioners have the mandate and function to take initiatives on human rights. Take for instance, the Article 4.8, which states that the AICHR must engage in dialogue and consultation with other Asean bodies, including civil society organisations and other stakeholders. This provides a window for the commissioners to continue the dialogue with the civil society groups.

Furthermore, Article 4.10 states in general terms that one of the AICHR functions is to obtain information from Asean on the promotion and protection of human rights. Information can be anything that the AICHR desires. So there is still room for manoeuvre. Eventually, each of the 10 commissioners would make a difference, either to push Asean human rights to a new plateau or to make a mockery of Asean aspirations.

However, the biggest spoiler is Article 2.1.b on the non-interference in the internal affairs of Asean members. After 42 years, this long-held and much-abused principle is under scrutiny. While most of the Asean members still respect this protective shield, others want to move ahead with ongoing regional and global diplomatic dynamics, dwelling on collective responsibilities and shared norms. The litmus test will come soon when the current Asean chair submits the Asean statement on Burma calling for Aung San Suu Kyi’s freedom, which will be signed by only half of the Asean members (Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Singapore). For the first time, Asean is washing its dirty linen for all to see. This Asean core group does not want to be held hostage by Burma’s intransigence and lack of credibility anymore.

This is a good sign for the future Asean Community. Substantive changes of policies and practices on Burma would come from these members, after all they were the original drafters of the non-interference principle 33 years ago, which are currently asking for broader interpretations and applications.

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