ASEAN ministers are expected to endorse the setting up of an ASEAN Human Rights Commission in July when they meet for the 42nd ASEAN Ministerial Meeting. Civil society groups in the region, however, have expressed concerns that the commission would be all form and no substance, without any power to intervene if a member country violated these rights.
Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr George Yeo, was reported by the local media in July 2008 as having said:
“Whether or not the human rights body we establish will have teeth I don't know. But it will certainly have a tongue, and I hope it will have a sharp tongue.” (MFA)
The following is a report, headlined “Toothless rights body would hurt ASEAN group”, from the Philippine Daily Inquirer:
BANGKOK—As the target date for launching the ASEAN human rights body (AHRB) nears, civil society groups have warned depriving it of watchdog powers would erode the credibility of the regional organization.
The warning came amid concerns over Burma’s (Myanmar’s) renewed crackdown on democracy fighter Aung San Suu Kyi and Thailand’s refusal to accept thousands of Burmese refugees fleeing from military rule.
About 200 civil society groups and individuals have endorsed a letter urging the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to give the AHRB the power to investigate complaints of abuses, conduct country visits and review the human rights situation in the region.
The letter, addressed to a panel drafting the AHRB’s terms of reference (TOR), also calls for the appointment of independent experts to the body.
The terms of reference, which detail the AHRB’s powers and duties, are expected to be adopted in July at the 42nd ASEAN Ministerial Meeting. The AHRB itself is to be formally launched in October.
The draft TOR has not been made public but journalists who have seen it say that while it focuses on promoting human rights, it gives no power to the AHRB to investigate and prosecute.
The TOR is expected to maintain ASEAN’s adherence to its noninterference policy, which some members have invoked to ward off criticisms of their rights records.
The civil society groups warned that a human rights body with no protection powers or independent experts would not fulfill its pledge to respect fundamental freedoms, protect human rights, and promote social justice.
“This would reflect badly on ASEAN as being unable to live up to the spirit of its own Charter and further dent the credibility of ASEAN in the eyes of the international community for setting up a substandard regional human rights mechanism as compared to those in the African, Inter-American and European systems,” the June 22 letter said.
The letter was cosigned by the Solidarity for Asian People’s Advocacy Task Force on ASEAN and Human Rights and the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia).
Forum-Asia underscored the importance of having competent experts in the AHRB, saying they could make the body relevant to beleaguered peoples.
They could also help the AHRB initiate actions to reduce human rights problems even with a limited mandate, Forum-Asia’s Yuyun Wahyuningrum, program manager for East Asia, told the Inquirer.
Wahyuningrum said it was vital that the people manning the AHRB would not be afraid to contradict the government line, if necessary.
She said this was the case with Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission which, although created by then President Suharto, did not become a government mouthpiece but criticized abuses and tried to curb them.
Former ASEAN Secretary General Rodolfo Severino of the Philippines said the establishment of the body was a step forward.
“For the first time, ASEAN will have a body concerned with human rights. This is an advance. It certainly will not have powers of ’enforcement’ in an association of sovereign states, but it can bring opinion to bear on egregious violations of human rights,” Severino said in an email interview.
He pointed out there was no transnational human rights body anywhere with the power to punish or protect.
Dr. Termsak Chalermpalanupap, ASEAN’s director of Political and Security Directorate, said in an article the AHRB mandate includes protection and promotion of human rights but would focus on protection first.
He said its functions could evolve over time and the body “is merely the new beginning.”
Responding to claims that the AHRB would be toothless, Chalermpalanupap said the body was not intended to have teeth or to function as an independent watchdog.
“The AHRB shall operate through consultation and consensus, with firm respect for sovereign equality of all Member States. Good points can be made and constructive actions can be agreed upon in friendly discussion and persuasion. No ‘biting’ is ever required,” Chalermpalanupap said.
As for concerns that the noninterference principle would hamper AHRB’s functions, he said the ASEAN charter also speaks of collective responsibility in enhancing peace, security and prosperity in the region, and of enhanced consultation on common concerns.
Wahyuningrum said noninterference could not be invoked when it came to crimes against humanity, genocide and humanitarian cases.
She said ASEAN members were signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in signing such conventions, they gave up part of their sovereignty.
(This article was written under the 2009 Southeast Asian Press Alliance fellowship)