Human rights struggle

The Straits Times interviewed Ms Braema Mathi regarding the new ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), see below for the article.

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23 October 2009
The Straits Times
‘Bite the bullet and learn from mistakes’

LIKE most civil society activists, Ms Braema Mathi takes issue with several aspects of the new human rights commission – particularly its adherence to Asean’s policy of non-interference.

But she points out one saving grace: The terms of reference (TOR) for the Asean Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) will be reviewed in five years.

This will give activists and civil society organisations in the region room to define new areas of improvement.

Ms Mathi, 51, says: ‘As the mantra goes, what is not prohibited in the TOR is not forbidden. This means testing boundaries all the time, which can be tiring.

‘But these areas can be identified for review only in five years, if the limitations are shown up when we test the system.’

As the chairman of local rights advocacy group Maruah, Ms Mathi – a former Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) – has been at the forefront of efforts to promote awareness of human rights issues.

Maruah, or dignity in Malay, was appointed in 2007 as the focal point for the Regional Working Group for an Asean Human Rights Mechanism, which was set up in 1995.

This was two years after Asean foreign ministers had agreed that the regional group should consider the establishment of an appropriate regional mechanism on human rights, in support of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action.

Asean has since been pushing for the setting up of a regional rights body, through meetings with government officials and holding conferences and workshops on the issues.

Many advocates felt that the AICHR should have been launched earlier, but Ms Mathi would rather look on the positive side. ‘It is an achievement for Asean to have come this far as our expectations of the grouping have been very low all this time. So while 16 years seems a long time by Asean standards, perhaps it is not so bad.’

After all, she points out, Asean has had to counter many challenges in setting up the commission.

One challenge is dealing with a consensus-seeking approach which is time-consuming.

The other challenge is Asean’s lacklustre rate in the implementation of its commitments and agreements.

Only 30 per cent of Asean agreements and commitments had been implemented, according to three former Asean secretaries-general in previous media reports.

Says Ms Mathi: ‘There were detailed workplans, but at the end of the day the member countries themselves must take their agreements seriously.’

But she feels that change is in the air, now that Asean has a Charter to follow and implement.

The Charter, which was signed in 2007, also heralds a restructuring of the Asean organisation and sees the setting up of new bodies like the AICHR.

There is also the Committee of Permanent Representatives, which consists of ambassadors appointed by each member state, at the Asean Secretariat in Jakarta.

‘They all point to a consolidation which I hope will pave the way for greater regionalism beyond economic integration,’ says Ms Mathi.

Listing some areas that she thinks the AICHR should focus on, she says that in the short run, it should get people acquainted with the commission while it expands on the technical details of the TOR.

In the long run, the TOR should be improved in every review to include a stronger protection mandate.

She believes that the success of the AICHR will hinge largely on the first slate of representatives that Asean governments have appointed to the commission.

Singapore has picked former senior district judge Richard Magnus as its first representative to the AICHR.

Says Ms Mathi: ‘This first slate of representatives will be the ones who will pave the way for the AICHR to become stronger in the long run.

‘If they fail in that role – paving the way, that is – then in five years’ time, the review will be much in the same mould as the current TOR, which will exasperate many actors in Asean.’

She predicts ‘a lot of unsettling moments’ in implementing the AICHR’s aims, and that the representatives will often find themselves in the hot seat as Asean enters a new chapter.

‘There is no other way than to bite the bullet and learn along the way from the mistakes.’

She hopes that the advent of a new regional rights commission will help Maruah’s work here.

The group holds public consultation workshops and conferences to raise awareness among Singaporeans about human rights issues here and in the region.

Maruah’s members include former NMP Siew Kum Hong, lawyer Peter Low, academic Cherian George, Dr Stuart Koe – founder of media company Fridae, and Mr Leong Sze Hian – president of the Society of Financial Service Professionals.

As Ms Mathi explains: ‘We enjoy a higher state of well-being. We are tuned to look at development from a welfare-oriented perspective as opposed to a rights-based perspective which some Asean citizens are very aware of.

‘For Singaporeans to be thus engaged will mean some discomfort. But it can also mean a fresher way to stay engaged by seeking the betterment of our fellow human beings.’

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