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Consultation Brings Civil Society Together to Help Create a Truly People-Centred ASEAN Community

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The 1st Regional Consultation on ASEAN and Human Rights has produced some concrete outcomes from its aim of garnering civil society to engage more effectively with ASEAN to help place it on a more human rights friendly path.
Last week saw the gathering of over 30 NGOs from around Southeast Asia for the 1st Regional Consultation on ASEAN and Human Rights, with participants setting their sights on more sustained and effective engagement with ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asia Nations). The Consultation, held in Kuala Lumpur from 26-28 August, also brought together representatives from the UN, national human rights institutions, international aid agencies and academia to take a frank and open look at the intergovernmental organisation that this year is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Among the topics under the spotlight was the ongoing ASEAN Charter drafting process, with ASEAN heads of state due to endorse the Charter during the 13th ASEAN Summit to be held in Singapore in November. Although human rights NGOs have been able to provide some input into the drafting process, there was a feeling amongst participants of the Consultation that they were still being kept at arm’s length, and were not being engaged with or having the same influence as trade and business groups. It was cited that no better illustration of ASEAN’s continuation of their top down elitist approach to policy making was the decision not to publish any draft of the ASEAN Charter for civil society to debate prior to its signing in November. It was subsequently agreed by the NGOs present at the Consultation to issue a letter to all of the Foreign Ministers within ASEAN on the decision not to publish, highlighting that it made a mockery of ASEAN’s claim that this was a “people-centred” Charter that would set ASEAN on a more human rights friendly path. (Click here to view the letter.)

Participants at the meeting also developed a series of NGO action points for intensifying and sustaining engagement with ASEAN both during and after the Charter drafting process. These so called “Kuala Lumpur Action Points” (KLAP) focussed on:

  • Intensifying NGO engagement in the ongoing Charter drafting process, helping to increase public participation in an elite driven process, and helping to bring human rights into the heart of the intergovernmental organisation;
  • Pressurising ASEAN to develop a human rights mechanism which has the power and capacity to make concrete progress in improving the human rights situation on the ground in Southeast Asia;
  • Bringing ASEAN to engage with human rights issues not currently featuring on its agenda, such as refugees/non-citizens/stateless persons, ethnic minorities, internal conflicts, and the human rights side of trade and finance; and bringing ASEAN to take stronger measures to help bring about democratisation and the promotion and protection of human rights in Burma;
  • Bringing ASEAN to account on the languid implementation of previous grandiose plans of action and declarations dealing with human rights issues;
  • Improving recognition of, and engagement with, international and national human rights mechanisms, such as the UN human rights mechanisms and bodies, and national human rights institutions;
  • Improving implementation of international human rights standards at the national level through the passing of necessary domestic legislation and the improvement of domestic human rights mechanisms.

To assist in the immediate implementation of these action points, the Consultation set up a Civil Society Task-Force on ASEAN and Human Rights to coordinate with interested NGOs and individuals.  (Click here to view the full text of Kuala Lumpur Action Points).

Participants agreed that the Consultation had prompted fresh thinking on ASEAN and how to engage with the body, and had resulted in some clearly stated action points on where to proceed from here. Civil society is now looking forward towards the 3rd ASEAN+ Civil Society Conference (ACSC III), which will be held from 1-3 November 2007 in Singapore, where a wide range of groups and individuals will meet (prior to the 13th ASEAN Summit) with the common goal of moving ASEAN towards a truly people-centred community.

The 1st Regional Consultation on ASEAN and Human Rights was organised by the Asia Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) and its member organization in Malaysia, Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM).