The fate of Laotian civil society activist Sombath Somphone will serve as a test case on whether the dictum of a people-oriented Asean community, expounded recently by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei, or people-centred community advocated by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, is genuine and sincere. Since December 2012, the whereabouts of Sombath, a Magsaysay Award winner are unknown.
Sombath’s wife, Dr Ng Shui Meng, has been working relentlessly to push for a full investigation by the Laotian government into his disappearance. Asean-based civil society groups have also continuously appealed to Vientiane to put more effort into the case, which occurred in front of a police checkpoint near the capital, where he was last seen. So far, very little information has been revealed by the authorities.
At a recent meeting in Bangkok, Asean parliamentarians praised Singapore for its efforts to urge the Lao government to expedite their inquiry into Sombath’s disappearance and resolve the case as soon as possible. They also called for other Asean members to take a firm and common stand on the issue.
As such, members of Asean and the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) should build on Singapore’s concern, by fully implementing the terms of reference (TOR) when AICHR is up for review this year. For the past five years, Asean has taken the easy route to promote human rights for Asean citizens, by talking endlessly about protecting people’s rights. But the time has come for action and commitment. To do this, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia can join Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand in implementing article 4.10 of the TOR, which permits Asean members to obtain information from their colleagues on the promotion and protection of human rights. The current chair, Myanmar, is also keen to do this, as well as reviewing the TOR.
As members of the United Nations Human Rights Council, they must present a report on human rights conditions – known as a universal periodic review (UPR) – in their countries to the UN during the four-year cycle. Last July, Indonesia distributed this report to Asean foreign ministers in Brunei, breaking the principle of states not interfering in their neighbours’ domestic affairs. At the upcoming Asean foreign ministerial meeting in Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand plan to do the same.
If all Asean countries agree to share their UPR reports and treat them as Asean documents, it would represent the most tangible progress of human rights promotion and protection in the group’s history. In the past, many Asean documents such as the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (1976) have been submitted and treated as UN documents.
In this regard, some AICHR members as well as Asean-based civil society groups are calling for the establishment of independent experts such as special rapporteurs on human rights similar to the mechanisms in the UN system. Along with the circulation of UPR reports among the Asean family, it will promote confidence and at the same time bridge the gap between Asean and universal norms and values. In fact, several UN human rights rapporteurs are Asean citi?zens — Dr Vitit Muntarbhorn from Thailand, Muzuki Darusman from Indonesia – to name just two.
AICHR members have discussed ways to strengthen the organisation since its inception in 2009 but they have been unable to get a consensus due to different perceptions about individual and collective rights. One of the much-debated ideas is to allow Asean commissioners to take complaints officially on human rights. Currently, complaints on rights violations are submitted informally to certain AICHR members who take up the matter in a private capacity. They included the mass killing of journalists in Maguindanao (2009), while the Philippines including the forced disappearance of Indonesian activist, Munir Thalib (2004) and Thai lawyer, Somchai Neelaphaichit (2005). Last year, AICHR members discussed Sombath’s fate in a closed-door session in Brunei followed numerous appeals but no decision was reached.
Previously, some AICHR members and Asean-based civil society groups have raised the possibility of having AICHR representatives to conduct on-site visits. Last year, Indonesia invited AICHR members for a consultation on human rights in the country. Other countries might follow this good practice.
As the Asean Community is approaching fast, cross-border issues related to rights violations and protection are likely to increase significantly. And, with six out 10 members situated on mainland Southeast Asia, new problems such as an influx of new refugees from non-Asean countries who travel back and forth through Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia can no longer be dealt with effectively with a bilateral approach. A regional mindset – that will eventually strengthen Asean centrality – is necessary.
But without liberal interpretation of the mandates, as well as further amendment of the terms of reference, all effort and talk of collective action and Asean unity would be futile. With blessings from Sultan Bolkiah and Najib for a more inclusive and responsive Asean, foreign ministers should not shy away from reviewing the TOR and making necessary amendments for stronger protection mandates for the region’s 630 million citizens.