Despite its imperfections, AICHR can still be force for human rights

29th Nov 2009
Thongbai Thongpao

Human rights activists gathered early last week in Bangkok to celebrate the nomination of Sriprapa Phetmeesri, director of Mahidol University’s Office of Human Rights Studies and Social Development, as chair and representative of Thailand in the newly established Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR).

On the same occasion, a seminar was held on the topic ”AICHR and public expectations”.

Also attending the meeting were representatives of minority groups along the Thai-Burmese border who have been suppressed by the Burmese junta. Potential victims of the proposed dam construction on the Salween River, which forms a part of the border between Thailand and Burma, also submitted a complaint to the Thai representative.

The participants agreed that overall the roster of AICHR commissioners was a disappointment. What the public had been looking forward to was for Asean to fully endorse and promote human rights in the same way that other regional bodies, such as the European Union, the Organisation of American States (OAS) and the Organisation of African Unity, have done.

They expect the 10-nation bloc to have a convention on human rights, of a similar format to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and what has been successfully outlined in the OAS Charter, the European Convention on Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, all of which have already been ratified.

As well, people in Asean countries had hoped an Asean human rights court, similar to what the Europeans have, would be formed.

But the things Asean peoples expected are nowhere to be seen, much less touched. Observers of the progress of human rights at the latest Asean Summit were left disappointed. The outcome in this area so far has been the establishment of a strangely named body, which cannot even accurately be called a human rights commission. To avoid disappointing human rights advocates, the words ”on human rights” were simply added to the name of the organisation.

No wonder people are disgruntled. Many of the participants in the meeting last week expressed their disappointment, with some stopping just short of saying outright that Asean was deceiving the world. Others expressed gloomy views on the success of the bloc in dealing with human rights issues, as human rights is a term almost unheard of in several of the 10 member-nations, where even freedom of the press is sadly limited.

It is noteworthy that almost all of the AICHR commissioners were appointed by their respective governments. In other words, they represent the governments, not the people. If a government doesn’t mention human rights, why should its commissioners? Thailand and Indonesia are among the nations whose appointees are not government representatives.

Apart from the controversial composition of the AICHR, its scope of duties and responsibilities was not clearly spelled out. There is also no stipulation that they have the mandate to ”protect” human rights, only to ”promote” them. More importantly, the commission is not to intervene in the internal affairs of member states. These restrictions in acting on even the most blatant of human rights violations present tremendous obstacles to the AICHR.

In any case, I express my confidence in Dr Sriprapa and hope that her experience, knowledge and determination will enable her to perform this crucial task even with all the obstacles.

At the meeting I related that I have experienced more than my fair share of disappointment when it comes to the protection of human rights in the region. More than 30 years ago, I joined hands with my counterparts in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore in urging Asean to set up a human rights protection body and a human rights court, only to be met with a cool response time and time again.

Many of those who stood with me on this issue have now passed away. Disappointing as it may be in many respects, the establishment of the AICHR has given those of us who remain a glimmer of hope, no matter how vague.

I also share the view of some experts who think that we can still promote and protect fundamental human rights even in the absence of a convention. This can be done through education, as people in many Asean member countries do not understand the importance of human rights.

In my view, to promote is to protect and to progress. If we propagate this knowledge among our fellow citizens, they will realise what they have lost when someone violates them. They will demand their rights because they will know that they exist. To spread this message therefore is to protect, and the commission is better than nothing.

When the villagers who would be affected by the proposed Salween dam presented their complaints to Dr Sriprapa, she said that since there were no regulations stopping the AICHR from accepting such complaints, she took it to mean that the commission could look into them.

This is exactly the path the commission is supposed to take. I wish her success in leading Thailand’s contingent in the AICHR, and she has all my support.

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