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Former judge brings unique expertise to the table. Fang Shihan.

Richard Magnus as AICHR representative

By Fang Shihan

What is the AICHR? More information here.

FORMER Senior District Judge, Richard Magnus is the new Singapore representative to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission for Human Rights, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He is also now serving as the Chairman of the Casino Regulatory Authority, Board member of the Land Transport Authority and member of the Bioethics Advisory Committee. He is currently also Chairman of the Political Films Committee in Singapore.

As a former law practitioner, Mr. Magnus is well qualified to understand the ‘bureaucratic processes’ involved in ASEAN to make AICHR a reality. Yet unlike the Thai representative to AICHR who was selected by the Thai civil sector, Mr. Magnus was selected by the Singapore’s foreign ministry. As former ASEAN secretary-general Ong Keng Yong said:

‘The Government’s position is to pick the best person for the job, not just someone who understands the points of view of the civil society groups.”

This points to a potential conflict between national interests and the interests of the multi-lateral organization. While there is no doubt to his impartiality as a judge in the Singapore courts, the question is where will his loyalties lie in the international court of humanity?

Will he defend humanity from his position in the AICHR? Or will he defend his nation with his appointment by the foreign ministry?

Drawing up the AIHCR Terms of Reference (TOR)

As the pioneer batch of national representatives to the AIHCR, these men and women symbolize the first step towards creating implementable norms protecting human rights in the region.

There is no doubting their competence in the field of human rights, yet as the mediators between jealous governments and zealous human rights activists, the commission faces a tough time welding together the values of humanity and the pragmatism of Southeast Asian governments.

Several other obstacles appear to hinder the ratifying, if not operationalisation of the TOR. From the perspective of national governments, having an official set of regional norms would limit policy flexibility. Considering ASEAN was initiated only to promote economic growth, Southeast Asian governments would hardly consider further restrictions on development beneficial at all.

Human rights groups could, for instance, justifiably charge the Lao government for human rights violations as they continue building dams along the Mekong River. Though the government could also choose to ignore these non-enforceable charges, this renders the agreement to the TOR moot.

Furthermore, the fear of the TOR setting precedent for militant activism in a region where most countries by Western standards are regarded as severely repressive could also be a reason to reject any regional human rights proposal, notwithstanding the potential for human rights to be politicised as activists gain higher moral ground, appealing to regional human rights agreements to break national law.

Human rights in a realist-driven dynamic

The heavy securitisation of Southeast Asia since the colonial pullout in the later half of the twentieth century probably complicates matters. From the aggression of Sukarno during the Konfrontasi period, to militant minorities at the Thai border to the recent terrorist insurgency, both regional and domestic securities have been guiding the interaction between Southeast Asian states.

When nearly all states still regard their immediate environment as unsafe, having to use their emergency powers to repress dangers, ratifying a human rights charter may be the least of their concerns.

Yet the new trend of referring to human rights as a human security issue may prove to draw middle ground. First conceived in 1995, human security comprises of the need to defend from seven main threats – economic security, food security, health security, environmental security, personal security, community security and most significant to this region, political security.

Though human security and human rights may seem interchangeable, the former may be more agreeable to states that are still driven by military (present or former) diplomats. Distinct from rights-based concepts which tend to be perceived as a wholly liberal Western construct, a security based dialogue may be more palatable to defensive Asian Values advocates while bringing about real results for the people.

Is it all just hot air?

As with most views on ASEAN, few think that the AIHCR will amount to anything more than empty rhetoric. Unlike the European Union, ASEAN serves as an amalgamation of national interests rather than an autonomous entity more than the sum of its members. If member states cannot even cooperate on economic issues, preferring to be protectionist, what hope can there be for human rights which cannot produce any immediate benefit?

Perhaps the selection of Mr. Magnus as a seasoned interpreter of the law is a good call. As a person now responsible for making highfalutin ideals of universal humanity a reality, he will have to straddle both sides of the dialogue.

While anyone can be an advocate on human rights by merely holding placards on the street, few possess the ability to make activists in civil society and pragmatic statesmen come to a point of agreement.