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Human Rights in Asia: Arbour’s Recommendations

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Asian NGO representatives met with the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the 14th Annual Workshop of the Framework on Regional Cooperation for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific region. Recommendations on key issues facing Asian human rights NGOs were presented.

During the three-day 14th Annual Workshop of the Framework on Regional Cooperation for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific Region, held in Bali from 10-12 July 2007, participating NGOs discussed some the key issues related to the latest developments within the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) and possible roles for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

Louise Arbour, the current United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, at an informal meeting with Asian NGOs, expressed that the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process of the HRC would revolutionise human rights protection. She also discussed the concerns of a number of Asian human rights NGO and concluded by presenting three broad recommendations.


The Universal Periodic Review

The High Commissioner emphasised that the creation of the UPR would be one of the most significant innovations in the new HRC for offering an institutional mechanism of ensuring the protection and promotion of human rights. Under this system the human rights records of all UN member states regardless of their size, wealth, or military or political importance will be regularly examined through a common mechanism. This mechanism will be based on the collection and dissemination of objective information by NGOs. In this first year, it is crucial that the HRC designs a mechanism that meets the high goals set for it in General Assembly Resolution 60/251.1

Arbour also shared her hope that the UPR process will make the governments more accountable in their commitments to international treaties: "At the same time this process will also encourage the states to ratify the major human rights treaties and show their commitments towards the internationally established human rights principles and values.”

Addressing concerns of Asian NGOs

Over the concern raised on the ECOSOC status of NGOs, the High Commissioner expressed her commitments to speed up the process and to also lend support in providing the status to NGOs with more management efforts.

During the discussion, NGO representatives raised concerns over the continuation of the studies initiated by the Sub-Commission on Human Rights and urged the High Commissioner to complete those studies either by the Advisory Committee of the Human Rights Council or the Research Unit of the OHCHR. In response to the issue raised for effective implementation of the Durban Declaration, she stressed that the active role of Asian NGOs is crucial in pushing government institutions to meet the set goals.

Participants of the meeting also recommended that the OHCHR consider individual violations of human rights in order to address issues of impunity. The High Commissioner responded by referring to the precarious position of constitutional powers and institutional human rights effectiveness in the region. For instance, whilst state executive and legislative branches exercise sovereign administerial powers, judiciaries continue to face critical challenges to their independence and electoral bodies are progressively being compromised. Arbour suggested that to ensure the independence and efficacy of national institutions, particularly in reference to law enforcement agencies and judiciaries, it is important to strengthen the respect for the rule of law and human rights protection mechanisms.

At this point a number of groups expressed their concerns about the allocation of high-level personnel to the office of the OHCHR and not to the regional offices. The High Commissioner responded by stating: “Because of the restricted nature of the UN budget, higher level staff cannot be deployed to the fields and regional offices but we will try to deploy competent officials”. It remains to be seen whether this deployment will satisfy the objectives towards mainstreaming human rights and promoting rights-based approaches in regional development strategies.

Recommendations to Asian NGOs

In most states the practice of advocacy is neglected and the implementation of human rights treaties and the recommendations of the Special Procedures are ignored. Consequently, the High Commissioner emphasised the need to engage bar associations and human rights groups in order to streamline human rights objectives.

At the end of the discussion, the High Commissioner requested that Asian NGOs improve engagement with governments in order to maximise their human rights development objectives. She noted that the role of NGOs in the region is to push the human rights agenda at the national and international level. Arbour closed by stating that the OHCHR always seeks reliable and credible information from NGOs, particularly working at the national level, as it reflects the situation of human rights at the ground level.