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ASEAN must ensure independence and effectiveness of its human rights body

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asean hrb.jpgCivil society organisations are stressing the need for independence and effectiveness of the recently touted ASEAN Human Rights Body so that it can be a credible and realistic mechanism for the promotion and protection of human rights. 


ASEAN must ensure independence and effectiveness of its Human Rights Body for it to be credible and realistic

(Bangkok, Thailand, 2 March 2009) Civil society welcomes the commitment made by the ASEAN during its 14th Summit in Hua Hin to establish an ASEAN human rights body that is credible and realistic. However, this can only be achieved if the independence and the effectiveness of the body are guaranteed in the terms of reference, stated the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), a membership-based organisation working on human rights.

After nine months of drafting, the High Level Panel (HLP) from ten member states of ASEAN came up with terms of reference (TOR) of the establishment of the ASEAN human rights body (AHRB). On 27 February 2009, Kasit Piromya, the Foreign Minister of Thailand, chaired the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting with the High Level Panel on an ASEAN Human Rights Body and approved the draft of the TOR on AHRB. The terms of reference, however, remains a confidential document until July 2009.

The objective of the AHRB, as mentioned in the press release of the HLP dated 27 February 2009, is to create an institution that will promote and protect human rights and “help shape and raise human rights standards in ASEAN according to regional context and act as channel for constructive cooperation on the issues of human rights for ASEAN member states”.

The content of the confidential terms of reference (TOR) of the AHRB was leaked to the Associated Press and reported widely during the 14th ASEAN Summit. It revealed that the body will work mainly on the promotion of human rights and clearly lacks mandate on the protection aspect. It will also work to defend ASEAN member states from external criticisms on their human rights record. In addition, the foreign ministers emphasised that the AHRB should be credible, realistic, effective and evolutionary.

“The imbalance between promotion and protection mandates must be corrected”, said Yap Swee Seng, the Executive Director of FORUM-ASIA. Yap further suggested, “ASEAN governments must appoint independent human rights experts to sit in this body if it is going to be credible internationally. The body must be given adequate power and resources to protect human rights, such as to receive complaints, conduct investigation and recommend redress to address human rights violations effectively in the region. Without the protection mandate, it is not realistic for the body to carry out the set of AHRB’s objectives”.

“This TOR is far below the expectations of the ASEAN peoples. It subjects the body to the principle of non-interference of the internal affairs of ASEAN member states, thus raises the question of how effective this body can be”, said Rafendi Djamin, who convenes the Solidarity for Asia Peoples’ Advocacy Task Force on ASEAN and Human Rights (SAPA-TF-AHR), a network of more than 30 human rights NGOs advocating for an accountable, independent and effective human rights mechanism.

Djamin added, “We are also disappointed that spaces for civil society to participate in the work of the body is not mentioned anywhere in the TOR, thus leaving the participation of civil society at the discretion of the member states and the members appointed to the body. This certainly is not in line with the aspiration of making ASEAN a ‘People-oriented ASEAN’. We call on ASEAN to conduct wider and more regular consultations to address the concerns of civil society over the TOR”.

Samydorai Sinapan, the President of a Singapore-based rights group Think Centre, said the TOR is “worrying” as the power to appoint members to the human rights body rest solely with the governments without the principle of transparency, public participation and consultation being encoded in the process. “How can the members of this body be independent from the government if the commissioners have to be accountable to the states and that the appointing government has the discretion to replace its representative at any time it wishes?”

Thun Saray, the President of Cambodia Human Rights and Development, expressed reservation on one of the tasks of the body: the drafting of the ASEAN human rights declaration. “The issue of cultural relativism is mentioned in the principles section of the TOR, there is a risk that the ASEAN human rights declaration may undermine the international standards of human rights”.

However, civil society groups see “worse part” of the TOR in its section on responsibility.

“This section tasks the human rights body to ‘defend ASEAN in the case of external interference in the domestic affairs of ASEAN member states relating to human rights’. This runs in total contradiction to the ASEAN peoples’ expectation that the body would defend the rights of people from violations committed by the states”, said Anelyn de Luna of Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma.

Aung Myo Min of Human Rights Education Institute of Burma expressed concerns over the secretariat support and budget for the human rights body. “If the body would have to operate based on the staff from the ASEAN Secretariat or those seconded from ASEAN states, and its budget would be determined by the ASEAN Secretariat, this would seriously undermine the independence and effectiveness of the body”.

“We want an ASEAN Human Rights Commission with teeth” said Cres Lucero, the Executive Director of the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines. “We want this commission to be accountable to the people, independent and effective. We believe a strong ASEAN human rights commission will contribute greatly to the objectives of the ASEAN of maintaining peace and security in the region”.

For more information, please contact:

  • Anelyn de Luna, Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, (in Bangkok), 6681 403 4830, [email protected]
  • Yap Swee Seng, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (in Bangkok/Kuala Lumpur), +601 22015272 or +6681 868 9178, [email protected]
  • Rafendi Djamin, Indonesia’s NGO Coalition on International Human Rights Advocacy (in Jakarta), +6281311442159, [email protected]
  • Cres Lucero, Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (in Manila), +632 437 8054, [email protected]
  • Aung Myo Min, Human Rights Education Institute of Burma (in Mae Sot), +6681 992 5293, [email protected]
  • Thun Saray, Cambodia Human Rights and Development (in Phnom Penh), +855 23 218653, [email protected]
  • Sinapan Samydorai, Think Centre, (in Singapore), 6594791906, [email protected]