SOUTH-EAST ASIA: Civil Society Gives Rights Body A Failing Grade

  • by Marwaan Macan-Markar (bangkok)
  • Inter Press Service

At the vanguard of such criticism are civil society organisations that have campaigned for years against oppression in the countries that belong to the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN), whose 10 members are Brunei, Burma (or Myanmar), Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

The performance of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) 'in its first year has seen some positive developments, but overall it is disappointing and worrisome on several accounts,' revealed a critical performance report prepared by civil society organisations (CSOs) to mark the first anniversary of the rights body.

'There seems to be resistance by several representatives in the commission to have clear working modalities to be outlined for the commission to conduct its work more efficiently and effectively,' added the report ‘Hiding Behind Its Limits’ released by the Solidarity for Asian People’s Advocacy, an umbrella group of regional civil society groups.

'(It has failed) to meet with relevant stakeholders, including civil society; and (it has refused) to officially receive cases of human rights violations,' the report said.

AICHR’s mission to prioritise 'human rights promotion over the urgent need to provide protection mechanisms' has exposed the flaws in the commission’s 'founding architecture', says Atnike Novo Sigiro of Forum-Asia, a Bangkok-based regional rights watchdog. 'When examining the ‘work’ that AICHR performed (in its first year), one cannot help but wonder: what has AICHR done and for whom?'

Its secrecy and lack of transparency have been as troubling to critics. 'We believe that the AICHR cannot keep working in secrecy,' Atnike asserted. 'AICHR should make information more accessible to the public through websites, press releases, and consultation meetings about their meeting agenda, work plan and decisions made.'

To some, such strong sentiments against AICHR, which was inaugurated on Oct. 23, 2009 at an ASEAN summit hosted by Thailand, marks activists’ loss of hope in a mechanism that they expected could help the victims of rights abuses.

'It is clear that the honeymoon between AICHR and the civil society groups is over,' said Phil Robertson, deputy director at the Asia division of Human Rights Watch (HRW), the New York-based global rights lobby. 'ASEAN civil society has declared in its first-year assessment of AICHR that it is tired of waiting; their patience is up.'

This marks an about-turn from the mood last year, when 'CSOs welcomed AICHR as a welcome step forward for the region and many were hopeful that it will deliver,' Robertson told IPS. 'There was hope for some flexibility that AICHR would use during the first year to show what relevant human rights work it could do.'

Some of the criticism against the nascent rights body is valid, concedes Rafendi Djamin, the Indonesian commissioner on the 10-member AICHR. 'I do understand the disappointment of CSOs in AICHR’s first year of existence, since they have been trying to approach AICHR since its inauguration,' he told IPS. '(Yet) to judge AICHR as window-dressing exercise of ASEAN is a bit premature.'

Rather than abandon the new rights commission that has been struggling to get on its feet, the region’s activists should continue to engage with it, explains Rafendi, himself a veteran of Indonesia’s civil society movement and who had been detained for three months during the Suharto dictatorship. 'Definitely AICHR definitely needs support from CSOs to strengthen its mandate in this region.'

AICHR’s predicament is rooted in the politics of the region, where only Indonesia and the Philippines of ASEAN’s 10 members have open democratic cultures and have been strong advocates of human rights. Thailand has had its democratic credentials tarnished since the 2006 coup, in addition to its use of the draconian lese-majesty law and computer crime act to suppress free expression.

Malaysia, Singapore and Cambodia, although with elected parliaments, are governed by political parties that use repressive national security laws and other forms of intimidation to target critics of the state.

Vietnam and Laos are one-party states ruled by communist parties, Burma is a military dictatorship and Brunei is an absolute monarchy.

So ASEAN’s journey since the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, when the idea of a regional rights body was floated, till its creation in 2009, has been shaped by the influence of some South-east Asian governments that are opposed to the region embracing and protecting international human rights norms and values through an official mechanism.

ASEAN, since its founding in 1967, has been more comfortable with the principle of non-interference by neighbours in domestic affairs. It has been the standard bearer of the 'Asian values' ideology, which placed greater importance on social harmony over protecting individual rights.

In fact, Indonesia, the region’s giant, found itself out of step with its ASEAN neighbours when the final language of AICHR was being drafted, and where consensus was required to give birth to the new rights commission.

Jakarta wanted AICHR’s terms of reference to have a complaints mechanism and make it accessible to victims, says Rafendi. But 'since the beginning of its establishment, the TOR (terms of reference) did not arm AICHR with a complaints mechanism. It was a political compromise between Indonesia and the nine other member states.'

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service