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NGO network calls for an independent, accountable and effective ASEAN human rights body

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A network of more than 25 ASEAN-based human rights organisations has met with the High Level Panel (HLP) on the establishment of the ASEAN human rights body on 20 March in Kuala Lumpur. They called on the panel to amend the Terms of Reference (TOR) of the ASEAN human rights body, in order to ensure that it is equipped with power and mandate to protect human rights effectively.

 The main concern of the network, Solidarity for Asia Peoples' Advocacy Task Force on ASEAN and Human Rights (SAPA TF-AHR), was that the draft TOR was not publicised. They also questioned the non-independence of the body, which will eventually be under the control of ASEAN governments.

While expressing gratitude for this dialogue opportunity, Rafendi Djamin, the Convener of the SAPA TF-AHR, said, "We regret that the draft TOR of the ASEAN human rights body has not been disclosed officially to the public". It has been eight months since the panel was established in July 2008, yet civil society has to rely on the draft TOR from an unofficial source. 

"Without the disclosure of the draft, the process is now being questioned as being not transparent by the general public", added Djamin, after the two-hour dialogue session.

Civil society representatives say that the body's insistence on maintaining "ASEAN values, standards and history" can undermine the principles of universality and inter-dependence of human rights norms and standards.

"While we recognise the cultural and religious diversity and pluralism of ASEAN, the ASEAN human rights body must work to ensure that states uphold their legal obligation under international human rights laws to eliminate cultural and prejudicial norms that perpetuate discrimination and violate human rights", remarked Wathshlah Naidu, the SAPA TF-AHR Gender focal point.

"The issue of non-interference is also out of place as a purpose of the ASEAN human rights body. We strongly propose that the High Level Panel delete the clause on the principle", Naidu added.

The Task Force has submitted a document to its 12 members, highlighting "the concerns of inaccessibility of the victims of human rights violation and general public". The document called on the High Level Panel to ensure that the draft TOR explicitly recognise and guarantee accessibility of human rights victims and general public to the ASEAN human rights body. It also emphasised on the involvement of civil society and the general public in every member state of ASEAN in the "process of selection and removal of the commissioners, and the review of the TOR". 

However, the key concern of the human rights network on the TOR is the unclear provisions on protection mandate of the body. "Human rights groups across the region are questioning whether the body can really protect human rights if there is no concrete provisions on the mandate to protect human rights", said Djamin. 
"During the dialogue with the High Level Panel, there were notions, hopes, serious concerns, and frustration. It is frustrating that the dialogue which was supposed to evolve around the draft TOR was not meaningful because the civil society was denied any copy of the TOR before the dialogue. There were serious differences on the panel members' perception of the basic principles of human rights, particularly on the principle of self-determination which they wrongfully equate to cessation", said Manja Bayang, the SAPA TF-AHR's thematic focal point on Indigenous Peoples. 

"We strongly propose that the protection mandate should include the power to assess and review general human rights situation in the region, carry out on-site visit, issue urgent letters, and establish individual complaint mechanism where the victim of human rights violations can complaint to the ASEAN human rights body", said Yap Swee Seng, the co-convener of the SAPA TF-AHR. "The body shall be in line with the standards of international human rights mechanism by ensuring that it can guarantee redress to victims of human rights violations". 

Yap, who is also FORUM-ASIA Executive Director, further stressed that the body must be independent in order to function effectively: it must be independent from the ASEAN governments by being autonomous, with its own secretariat to support its work. 

"Without all these features, it is unlikely that the ASEAN human rights body would be up to the expectation of the ASEAN peoples, as without these characteristics, ASEAN human rights body would not be credible and effective", he added.

The dialogue is the second meeting between the High Level Panel and the SAPA TF-AHR after the 41st ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in July 2008, where the 12 member panel was tasked with the drafting of the TOR of the AHRB. The first interface was held in September 2008 in Manila, the Philippines.