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ASEAN Workshop Highlights Need for Greater Civil Society Involvement

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The Sixth Workshop on the ASEAN Regional Mechanism on Human Rights again highlighted the need to challenge the “ASEAN Way” through greater civil society involvement, emphasising the need to publish the draft ASEAN Charter.

Last week saw the meeting of the Sixth Workshop on the ASEAN Regional Mechanism on Human Rights, which was held in Manila, Philippines. This year’s workshop attracted more interest than usual due to the fact that it comes in the year in which ASEAN is looking to agree on a Charter for itself, creating a window of opportunity for the inclusion of a regional human rights mechanism in the Charter. However, despite this new found optimism, the information from the workshop only acted to highlight how far ASEAN has still to go in developing a human rights mechanism which makes a real difference to the human rights situation on the ground in Southeast Asia.

The annual workshop on the ASEAN regional mechanism on human rights has been running since 2001, and is organized by the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism (formed in 1994), along with the host ASEAN government and the country’s National Human Rights Commission (if it has one). These workshops bring together government officials, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), representatives from academia, and members of the four national human rights institutions in the region to discuss progress made and new ideas regarding the establishment of an ASEAN human rights mechanism.

Yet, if anything, these annual workshops act as a reminder of how painstakingly slow progress has been towards developing a human rights mechanism for the ASEAN region. It was way back in 1993, at the 26th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM), that the foreign ministers “agreed that ASEAN should…consider the establishment of an appropriate regional mechanism on human rights.”1 Fourteen years later the Eminent Persons Group set up to help draft an ASEAN Charter could only report that “the establishment of an ASEAN human rights mechanism is a worthy idea that should be pursued.”2

The following two pieces of information from this year’s workshop help to illustrate why progress has been so painstakingly slow. It was established during the course of the two days that:

i)The inclusion of reference to a Human Rights Commission as opposed to a Mechanism in the ASEAN Charter should be pushed for;

ii)The draft Charter will not be published prior to its signing by the Heads of State of ASEAN at the Thirteenth ASEAN Summit in Singapore in November.

The first point regarding the establishment of a Commission appears to be the result of attempts to adhere to the conservative nature of ASEAN itself, despite claims from the workshop’s participants that this offers something more substantive than a “mechanism”. ASEAN was established in 1967 to help guard against external interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states, as governments sought to do what was “necessary” to establish their rule. The “ASEAN way” of decision by consensus has helped to preserve this founding principle up to the present day. Therefore, it seems that any reference to a human rights mechanism, which by its very nature attempts to guide and regulate the exercise of state power, only has a chance of being included in the upcoming Charter if it is presented to the ASEAN governments in the most watered down of forms. Reference to a commission offers the chance that even those governments most adverse to interference (often being those with the most to hide) can still be talked around. In contrast, reference to a mechanism leaves open the possibility for the development of a regional body which could have a real impact on the human rights situation on the ground, such as an ASEAN regional human rights court with the power to issue legally binding decisions. Specific reference to a commission instead points towards the creation of a political body, in which the governments of ASEAN will come together and collectively shake their heads and issue declarations while resting easy in the knowledge that nothing of any real consequence will result. Thus, the illusion of progress in ASEAN’s 40th year is created, while loyalty to ASEAN’s founding goal of “non-interference” is privately celebrated.

The second point from the workshop sheds light on what is needed if more meaningful progress is to be made in developing a credible regional human rights mechanism. It became clear on the final day of the workshop that, contrary to NGOs’ expectations, the draft charter will not be made public prior to its signing by the ASEAN Heads of State in November. This news was not greeted with any great furore in the workshop itself, with civil society participation (apart from those members of the Working Group) limited to a handful of participants given “observer” status. For more meaningful progress to be made requires the people of Southeast Asia to become more engaged with the intergovernmental organisation that claims to serve their interests. Over its first forty years ASEAN has kept civil society at arm’s length, enabling ASEAN to develop as a “top down” elitist organisation with a narrow policy agenda serving the interests of the few. The decision not to publish the upcoming Charter is merely a continuation of the ASEAN way of issuing decisions from above. Yet, if ASEAN is to develop into an intergovernmental organisation which truly serves the interests of the people, then a greater role for civil society is essential. Without greater civil society participation in the drafting of the ASEAN Charter, the fear is that the Charter will simply reinforce ASEAN’s traditional “top down” approach to doing things.

These annual workshops attempt to bring together representatives from civil society, governments in the region, and intergovernmental organisations in pursuit of a common goal. However, the workshop has always to contend with the spectre of the “ASEAN way” of non-interference and decision by consensus (by the governments in the region). This year’s workshop has helped to highlight that if more significant progress is to be made on the establishment of a credible regional human rights mechanism, then the “ASEAN way” itself needs to be challenged, which can only occur through the greater involvement of civil society in ASEAN’s decision making processes. A good place to start would be to secure greater civil society involvement in the drafting of an ASEAN Charter through its publication prior to its signing, which the drafters claim will “set a new dawn for ASEAN”.3

AMM Communique (1993), Joint Communique of the 26th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting held in Singapore on 23-24 July 1993, taken from the ThinkCentre website, found at: Accessed on 31/5/07.

EPG (2006) Report of the Eminent Persons Group on the ASEAN Charter, available in the official website of ASEAN at: Accessed on 23/5/07.

Speech delivered by the Chairperson of the High Level Task Force on the drafting of an ASEAN Charter, H.E. Rosario G. Manalo, at the Sixth Workshop on the ASEAN Regional Mechanism on Human Rights, 17 July 2007.