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Civil society in Asia welcomes ASEAN human rights body “cautiously”

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During the second meeting of the Solidarity for Asian’s People Advocacy (SAPA) Working Group on ASEAN in Bangkok recently, civil society groups agreed that the ASEAN Charter must be popularised, and the process of drafting the terms of reference for the human rights body must be transparent.
(Bangkok) Civil society has welcomed the inclusion of an “ASEAN human rights body” in the ASEAN Charter but how its members would draft the terms of reference, including what is its key functions and composition remains largely unknown.

The Solidarity for Asian People’s Advocacy (SAPA) Working Group on ASEAN said in a meeting held in Bangkok on 1 February that the charter itself was drafted confidentially; civil society only read contents of the draft after it was leaked to the media. The event was part of SAPA’s 2nd General Forum convened by its Regional Steering Committee from 2 to 3 February.

During the meeting, attended by about 60 representatives from civil society organisations, the group agreed that the charter must be discussed by everyone related to it, urging that the drafting process of the terms of reference must be “open and transparent”.

ASEAN member states are expected to discuss the terms of reference although its process remains unclear. Civil society groups want ASEAN to appoint independent judges and human rights experts as members of the body. These members should be able to visit countries of concern and give advice to each state for better protection of human rights.

But another question remains: Will all decisions of the body follow the ASEAN way of consensus or not? If the answer is yes, human rights may become a victim of political negotiation between states involved in related violations in the region, thus its value will be compromised based on who is the better negotiator and whose interest is at stake.

Hence, the role of civil society groups has become more indispensable as ASEAN attempts to shift from state-centric to more people-oriented. The group then agreed to continue monitoring the process of ratification in their respective countries and the progress on the establishment of the human rights body.

Although the charter does not reflect what civil society had suggested, it will have an effect on every living person in ASEAN as the 40-year-old informal grouping will become a legal entity under international law.

For example, the new trade and economic agreements between ASEAN states will change people’s life. However, most citizens of ASEAN states have no inkling of how the charter will affect their lives. Therefore, popularising the charter is another step forward for civil society to raise awareness of how important it is to ensure that human rights are represented in it.
Meanwhile, the ASEAN Charter, a “historical achievement of ASEAN” according to former Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister Ali Alatas, is now open for ratification. However, not all ASEAN states are ready for the process.

Singapore, who was the host of the 13th ASEAN Summit, had ratified the charter for economic interest. In Indonesia, the debate on this ratification divided the country’s House of Representatives, who eventually agreed to ratify if the government can ensure that changes are made in the content, including provisions on decision making process, sanctions and a human rights body.

Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines have shown similar reactions. During the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on 30 January, Philippine President Arroyo reiterated that the country will ratify the charter only after the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.