The much-anticipated ASEAN human rights body, put forward at a recent meeting of ASEAN in Thailand, has been greeted with derision by elements of the media and human rights bodies.
To be known as the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, its terms of reference have been dismissed as lacking in teeth and letting rights abusers off the hook.
The Jakarta Post is already labelling it a “not-so-righteous body”, while the Wall Street Journal mocked it as an “outrageous ... toothless council”. Amnesty International noted with concern that each state would be able to reject criticism of its own human rights record by veto because decisions would be made by consensus.
ASEAN human rights groups such as Solidarity for Asian People's Advocacy, based in Thailand, were “disappointed” that the terms of reference lacked a binding protection mandate - in other words, permission for monitors to conduct country visits and assess the situation on the ground or even some form of redress if a member state violates human rights.
Australian media groups have been noticeably quiet on the development of the ASEAN human rights body.
There is a tug-of-war growing between those who desire more radical change - human rights organisations, Western commentators and politicians - and those who would prefer to see more gradual evolution, the bureaucrats and leaders of the countries in question, the so-called “ASEAN elite”.
With these two factions in conflict, can such groups be reconciled and establish a workable frame of reference for the rights of ASEAN’s 500 million citizens? Based on my recent consultations with policymakers in Indonesia and Singapore, there appear to be two key geopolitical considerations that offer glimmers of hope.
First, civil society in South-East Asia along with ASEAN’s dialogue partners, like Australia and the US, have contributed to putting human rights on the organisation’s agenda. On this issue, former ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong says: “Most of the [regional] civil society has started to make an impact on the concept of ASEAN ... there is a good case to be made that some of the other partners of ASEAN, plus their civil societies actually contributed to the momentum that we see in elevating ASEAN to a more formal regional body and developing the ... political, economic and cultural/social sectors.”
Second, in South-East Asia, there is growing acceptance that human rights violations in one country can affect the political, economic and security situation of the region. Ong says about Burma, “The feeling among South-East Asians is ... the issue is domestic but the impact is beyond domestic. If the impact is not good for us outside the country, then all of us should try to find a solution.”
Ong told me that ASEAN members were becoming increasingly intolerant of Burma because it is affecting ASEAN’s international image.
ASEAN was formed in 1967 against a background of regional disputes about borders and regime legitimacy. The region’s leaders were focused on preventing inter-state conflict. While they were exceptionally successful at this, the protection of human rights was not a priority.
But more than four decades later, the ASEAN Charter, released in 2008, refers to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Four ASEAN members have created national human rights institutions. Smoke and mirrors, maybe, but an improvement on what was there before.
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