Working to build an image for new Asian rights group

By KAVI CHONGKITTAVORN
The Nation
Bangkok, Monday 15 November 2010

The Asian Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) is one year old and still in the process of implementing its pledges to promote and protect human rights in South-East Asia.

The lack of progress in addressing the human rights situation and consultations with civil society groups (CSO) has raised eyebrows outside government circles. That feeling could certainly last quite a long time.

Within the AICHR, a few serious challenges exist that the 10 commissioners must confront head-on before they can reach the comfort level and earn respect from the regional and international community.

First and foremost is the attitude of Asean members in the area to human rights. After the adoption of the Asean Charter (2007), which led to the establishment of the AICHR in 2009, the members now think they can be more complacent. After all, at the international level, they are UN members and must go through the universal periodic reviews (UPR), which are mandatory every four years.

This mindset is very prevalent among the new and old Asean members. They are more willing to cooperate with the UN related agencies than the CSO at home. For instance, during the preparation of Lao UPR, the government and officials concerned were very cooperative with the UN representatives in sharing sensitive information on human rights.

During the reviews in May, the Lao representatives answered questions posed from other UN delegates without fail. In all, Laos accepted 48 recommendations during the UPR but it rejected the idea of establishing a national human rights institution and freeing prisoners held following peaceful demonstrations. Strictly from Vientiane's point of view, it was a great success.

However, this kind of Lao spirit has been lacking within the human rights process in the region. It was as if at the Asean level, there was no need to address the human rights issues seriously as the grouping is using Asean norms and standards - a euphemism for expediency.

During the UPR, Lao addressed key human rights issues related to Laotian women and children, administration of justice, the controversial treatment of Hmong people repatriated back from Thailand, religious beliefs, freedom of expression, rights to demonstrate, the condition of prisons in Laos and unexploded landmines.

These issues could actually be raised and addressed within Asean's human rights mechanism.

Overall, it is about time the Asean members gave the same human rights treatment at the international and regional level. Burma, Singapore and Thailand are three remaining Asean members that will participate in the UPR next year.

In the case of Singapore, there are already two independent reports assessing Singapore's human rights -- one by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, a think tank, and the Think Centre, a non-governmental organisation. Both provide useful recommendations to improve the human rights situation in the island republic. Thai civil groups will follow a similar step.

Second, the AICHRA commissioners can be problematic due to their personal and dogmatic views of human rights issues and their willingness to discuss and interpret their mandates and those contained in the charter.

Obviously persons appointed by their governments - some of them are bureaucrats - must speak on behalf of their capitals. Only Indonesia and Thailand employed an open recruitment in transparent ways. Their two commissioners are genuine human rights experts, independent and thought provoking, sometimes very much disturbing their own governments. It will take time before the commissioners themselves establish mutual trust and the same wavelength.

Each commissioner should be more creative and reach out to human rights communities in their own countries. He or she has to be bold in receiving information from their own people concerning abuses of rights and should not be afraid to take up new initiatives that will promote and protect human rights locally.

Finally, the AICHR has yet to come up with doable guidelines in allowing non-state stakeholders to participate in the human rights process similar to the UN Economic and Social Council, African Union and other good practices. This is part of the rules of procedure, which remains a sticking point between the AICHR and civil society.

The commissioners argue that they can operate simply based on the terms of reference without any rules of procedure.

That is correct provided commissioners have liberal minds and opt for inclusiveness in granting consultative status to CSO. But they do not. At the moment, the Working Group on an Asean Human Rights Mechanism, established in 2000, has been the only group consulted by the AICHR.

Truth be told, the working group's members have never applied to become the so-called entities associated with Asean. The Asean Secretariat recognises de facto the group on its own and the AICHR feels comfortable with the consultation. The 76 organisations recognised by the Asean Secretariat, including the Asean Kite Council and Asean Vegetable Oils Club, are professional organisations not truly CSO in the strict sense.

The AICHR fears that Asean-based non-state groups, which are many and diverse with missile-focused causes, have ulterior motives due to different sources of external financial support. Consequently, they are reluctant to sit down with them.

As a positive step, the commission should at least hold the much needed consultations with the four national human rights institutions in Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia. The funding comes from state budgets.

Without these necessary steps, it is impossible for the AICHR to prepare drafting the Asean Declaration on Human Rights, which is expected to be completed by the end of next year under the Indonesian chair. Regular engagements between the AICHR and CSO are prerequisite in performing such a task.

Asia News Network

MySinchew 2010-11-15