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AICHR: ASEAN’s journey to human rights

January 11, 2010

Jakarta Post

The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission for Human Rights’ (AICHR)  was established at a time when the human rights situation in Southeast Asia has deteriorated, with the recent attacks on churches in Indonesia and Malaysia, the killing of journalists in the Philippines and the jailing of political activists and bloggers in countries such as Myanmar and Vietnam. How much should Southeast Asians expect from the new commission? How can they contribute to its development? The Jakarta Post’s Ary Hermawan interviewed several people and filed the following reports.

Whining about AICHR’s lack of teeth “is to bark up the wrong tree”, says Termsak Chalermpalanupap, the director for political and security cooperation at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta.

The newly established rights body was never meant to be an independent watchdog, as its critics have wished it were, he says.

“Like all other ASEAN organs or bodies,” Termsak argues, the commission “shall operate through consultation and consensus, with firm respect for sovereign equality of all member states”.

“No ‘biting’ is ever required. ASEAN would not have come this far if its member states wanted to bite one another with sharp teeth just to get things done their own way,” he says.

ASEAN has indeed come a long way to proudly announce the historic formation of its first ever human rights commission during the 42nd ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) in Hua Hin, Thailand, last year.

The pledge to strengthen human rights cooperation among ASEAN countries was actually made 17 years ago at the 26th AMM in Singapore in 1993, when foreign ministers in the grouping “agreed that ASEAN should coordinate a common approach on human rights and actively participate and contribute to the application, promotion and protection of human rights”.

But that was before the crippling Asian financial crisis of 1997/1998 and the inclusion of four new members to ASEAN: communist Vietnam in 1995, junta-ruled Myanmar and communist Laos in 1997, and Cambodia in 1999.

Only after the ASEAN Charter was fully ratified in 2008 did efforts to set up a human rights body resume. A High-Level Panel (HLP) tasked with drafting the planned rights body’s terms of reference (ToR) was formed in Singapore in July 2008.

After much negotiation, the AICHR was inaugurated. Its main purpose is encouraging: “To promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of the peoples of ASEAN.”

However, the 14 articles under the mandate and function section in the ToR deal only with the promotion of human rights. Nowhere does it explicitly mention the authority to investigate cases and prosecute rights offenders.

ASEAN leaders, in defense of the new body amid worldwide criticism, called the AICHR a “work in progress”. After all, it was made clear in a Jakarta-sponsored joint declaration that it would be evaluated every five years.

The Indonesian Foreign Ministry’s director general for ASEAN affairs, Djauhari Oratmangun, said the AICHR reflected ASEAN’s “evolution”.

As an ongoing evolutionary process, says Termsak, who served on the HLP as a resource personnel, it would be unrealistic for anyone to expect the ASEAN human rights body to be a “Big Bang”.

Defensive and apologetic as it may sound to cynics, such is the real state of the AICHR. Against the backdrop of the grouping’s political diversity and rampant rights abuses in the region, it should be seen fairly for what it is: a breakthrough.

But then again, it is complacency that worries human rights defenders the most.

Indonesia’s representative to the commission, Rafendi Djamin, who was likely seen as a gadfly by the HLP during deliberations for the ToR, says setting a definite time frame for the betterment of the AICHR’s mandate was crucial, adding it may take a decade or even less if the 42-year-old bloc wants it, since the joint declaration provides that possibility.

He also stresses the involvement of civil society groups will be key to ensuring the effectiveness and strengthening of the commission.

“Luckily,” Rafendi says, “the ToR provides the opportunity for civil society’s participation.”

The commission is currently based at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, with “only a table or two” to do its work, says Rafendi. It may take some time before the commissioners get their own proper office with a meeting room, a library, a research center and staffers.

The Philippines and Thailand have offered to host the commission, but their bids will likely be shouted down by other member states that would prefer to have it near the  secretariat and their permanent representatives to ASEAN.

The commissioners, who will serve for three years each and may only be appointed twice, have met just once since the inauguration. A working plan is still being devised, and apparently no priority issues to be highlighted in their campaigns have been agreed upon.

Rafendi says he is still collecting input from the many stakeholders in the country and planning to organize a forum to give the public a say on the rights body to make Southeast Asia a safer and freer region.

Civil society groups, with a broader definition of promotion, appear to be pushing the commission to overreach its powers, with the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia) asking the commission to monitor the Philippines’ probe into the politically linked massacre of 57 civilians, including journalists, in the country’s south.

The forum believes the massacre is yet more “clear evidence of the culture of impunity that has been pervading the Philippines for many years. Killings like these are prevalent in the country because perpetrators of these abuses are never brought to justice.”

Noted lawyer Todung Mulya Lubis, from rights group Imparsial, goes as far as suggesting the commission create a fact-finding team for major human rights violations such as the Philippine massacre and the killing of rights defenders.

“This is also part of the promotion of human rights. The commissioners must be progressive in discerning the notion of promotion,” he says.

Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) coordinator Usman Hamid says the AICHR should be used as a tool to encourage ASEAN countries to accede to human-rights related conventions.

“I think the ratification of the Rome Statute is the most urgent. To date, the Philippines is the only [member] country to have ratified it,” he says.

He adds the other crucial issue is political freedom, citing the notorious military rulers of Myanmar.

Only time will tell if the AICHR will actually serve its purpose.

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This post is in: ASEAN, Campaign Updates

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