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Lack of transparency will only impede the cause of human rights. Donaldson Tan

ASEAN Human Rights – Going Forward or Stalled?

Donaldson Tan / Deputy Editor

With less than 6 weeks to go till the deadline of the launch of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission for Human Rights (AICHR), the Singapore Government has been surprisingly quiet on matters related to the appointment of the Singapore Representative to the AICHR.

On the other hand, Thailand has exhibited gusto in its approach. 2 weeks ago, the Thai Foreign Ministry opened up applications for candidates to represent Thailand in the AICHR to the public. The candidacy of the Singapore Representative is not even on the agenda of the latest seating of the Parliament.

If not now, then when?

The last bleep on the local human rights radar was the MARUAH workshop on "Engaging the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) – The People’s Views" dated 22 August 2009 at Novotel Clark Quay. Representatives from civil society and the Government attended the workshop. Ninety participants from various civil society, political and academic organisations, and members of the public participated in the workshop. Diplomats and media personnel were present as observers.

Is 6 weeks sufficient to vet applicants for the Singapore Representative to the AICHR? In retrospect, the Parliamentary Select Committee took 3 months to vet through 46 applicants to select the current 9 Nominated MPs. With so little time left, it appears that the Government may not open the application for the post of the Singapore Representative to the public and civil society. In fact, MARUAH had emphasised to the Government on the need for transparency of the selection process for the Singapore Representative to the AICHR. Perhaps a government official has already been appointed to this post.

In its recommendation, MARUAH stressed that the Singapore Representative must carry the human rights mandate, so the selection process must be a democratic one which is in consistent with the Paris Principles. The Paris Principles relate to the status and functioning of national institutions that protect and promote human rights. In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Paris Principles unanimously and Singapore did not object. The Paris Principles stressed a selection procedure which affords all necessary guarantees to ensure the pluralist representation of the social forces involved in the protection and promotion of human rights.

Candidacy Criteria

The Office of the Singapore Representative to the AICHR is required to be independent and pluralistic under the Paris Principles. On the other hand, the AICHR Terms of Reference (TOR) states that the Representative is accountable to the appointing Government. The appointing Government also must give due consideration to gender equality, integrity and competence in the field of human rights in selecting the Representative. The candidate has to be someone who not only act independently, but also ensure the plurality of the Office.

Competence in the field of human rights is most probably the hardest criteria to qualify. Finding a Singaporean candidate with a substantial track record in human rights advocacy would be challenging. Anybody can don on the face of a human rights activist, but there is virtually no history of successful human rights campaigning in Singapore. The closest to a successful human rights advocate in Singapore are probably individuals who contributed to the negotiation of international human rights instruments.

Possible Candidates

With this in mind, there are 2 possible candidates - Associate Professor Simon Tay, Chairperson of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, and Braema Mathi, Chairperson of MARUAH. Do note that this list is not exhuastive and there may be other qualified candidates in Singapore.

Associate Professor Simon Tay is the Chair of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA). His profile at NUS reveals that his comprehensive legal background. He teaches "Singapore Legal System & Constitutional Law" and "Singapore & International Law" at the NUS Faculty of Law. Associate Professor Simon Tay's commentaries on international and regional affairs are regularly featured on TODAY.

SIIA is a founding member of the ASEAN-ISIS, an association of think tanks registered with ASEAN. Through SIIA, Associate Professor Tay is involved in Track II Diplomacy, a type of informal diplomacy among governments, NGOs and other stakeholders. The issue here is whom Associate Professor Tay represents in Track II Diplomacy and this will reflect whether he is indeed independent and will be non-partisan in promoting and protecting human rights in Singapore should he be appointed as the Singapore Representative to the AICHR. His academic competence in law related to human rights is solid. Coincidentally, he is also the Chairman of the National Environment Agency.

Bramae Mathi is a familiar figure in the local NGO circles. She is currently the Chairperson of the Singapore Working Group for ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism (MARUAH). She co-chaired the 7th Workshop on Human Rights Mechanism for ASEAN with Associate Professor Tay. Braema Mathi is a former Nominated Member of Parliament; a former President of AWARE and current Vice-President of Action For AIDS. She led Transient Workers Count Too and its precursor from 2002-2007. Her contribution to CEDAW (sometimes called the International Bill of Woman's Rights) is widely recognised.

A closing note

Will opacity of the selection process stumble the progress of human rights in Singapore and ASEAN? The TOR of the AICHR is far from perfect. The role of the National Representatives to the AICHR are important as they will play a pioneering role in the development of the TOR and set the ball rolling in promoting human rights in Southeast Asia. During their term of office, their agenda and experience will shape the direction of human rights development in Southeast Asia. It is imperative that the National Representatives are non-partisan. It is imperative that all aspects of the human rights mechanism to be transparent.

Read also: An engaging consultation workshop by the Singapore Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism