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Delay the ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism no more

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asean.jpgFORUM-ASIA echoes the voices of other NGOs who are keenly observing the development of the ASEAN human rights body. As States appoint their representatives from either civil society or bureaucrats to draft the terms for the body, activists want their inputs to be considered as well.

Pokpong Lawansiri writes a commentary to urge ASEAN not to delay the setting up of the body so that human rights defenders and victims of violations can seek the right to life and justice.

As ASEAN (Association of the Southeast Asian Nations) develops into a more cohesive and effective inter-governmental body following the signing of the ASEAN Charter in November last year, human rights groups are observing keenly the development of the ASEAN human rights body (AHRB).

Next month, the High Level Panel (HLP) which drafts the AHRD’s terms of reference is expected to be formed after the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) in Singapore. The structure of the panel, with 10 members from each ASEAN country is expected to be similar to the High Level Task Force (HLTF) during the drafting of the ASEAN Charter. The Task Force came under heavy criticisms by civil society groups as it was not very open to their engagements and inputs.

By this time, all governments would have selected their representatives to draft the TOR of the AHRB. For Thailand, Professor Vitit Muntaphorn, a renowned Chulalongkorn University human rights law expert and a UN Special Investigator on North Korea’s human rights is speculated to be on the panel. It is not certain how other countries will select their representatives, whether they will be people with similar human rights expertise or bureaucrats who believe in human rights in a non-ASEAN concept. But the CMLV bloc (Cambodia, Myanmar/Burma, Laos, and Vietnam), who are seen to be less open to human rights, are expected to appoint bureaucrats to do the writing.

As ASEAN continue to debate a common human rights concept as the basis of the AHRB, international organisations such as the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (Southeast Asia) insist that it should be according to international human rights standards.

That it should not be merely window dressing but that the mechanisms should be able to carry out significant monitoring, investigation, and protection work, while prioritising and ensuring the link between civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights.

Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, ASEAN Secretary General has challenged ASEAN’s cultural relativism principle during a two-day workshop on ASEAN Regional Human Rights Mechanism held in Singapore from 12-13 June.

He said that “ASEAN has not look back at our roots of documents in our civilisations if we really have a different definition of human rights”. He believed that historically, there was a similar definition of human beings and human rights.

As they are UN members, with Philippines and Malaysia being represented in the prestigious UN Human Rights Council, ASEAN should refrain from repeating its outdated “ASEAN’s way” stance. Human rights defenders are not calling for the reinvention of new standards, but want to ensure that the AHRB are guided by standards that all ASEAN are signatories too, like the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1993 Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, and other international human rights treaties.

Most importantly, ASEAN officials should not continue to say that this ASEAN charter is a milestone document as it includes an ASEAN human rights body. To the eyes of ASEAN observers, although the development is welcomed, ASEAN needs to accelerate its development by setting up a long term timeline for the future. It should be noted that ASEAN is the last regional body that has yet to establish a human rights mechanism, compared to those in other regions. Our African, American and European counterpart has functioning regional human rights mechanisms for decades such as the European Court of Human Rights, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, or African Commission for Human and People’s Rights.

Despite human rights defenders pressuring ASEAN with a 1993 Joint Communiqué issued at the 26th AMM in Singapore – where it reminded the countries that it had been 15 years since ASEAN stressed the importance of regional human rights mechanism – little progress has been made. In the document, the ministers “agreed that ASEAN should […] consider the establishment of an appropriate regional mechanism on human rights”.

In fact, ASEAN as UN members, had agreed to established the regional human rights protection mechanism as far back as December 1977, almost 21 years ago, when the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 32/127 that said “…in areas where regional [mechanism] in field of human rights do not exist [states should] consider agreements with a view to the establishment […] suitable regional machinery for the promotion and protection of human rights.”

In view of this, ASEAN must set up the mechanism in a timely manner and should not delay its establishment anymore. However, in speeding up the process, ASEAN must ensure the broad participation and transparency of the processes through regular consultations and participation of human rights organisations and civil society groups at both national and regional levels.

Dr. Surin Pitsuwan had stated out clearly in the same forum that in order to make ASEAN a “people’s centred” regional organisation as highlighted in the ASEAN Charter, the HLP must operate under the principle of rule of law and good governance and must reflect “the people’s aspiration, expectations, and dreams”.

We hope that soon enough, the victims of human rights violations in Burma, Southern Thailand, West Papua, Mindanao, or elsewhere in ASEAN can see the creation of human rights mechanism which will assist them to achieve their aspirations – their right to life and right to justice.