ASEAN human rights talks face major challenges

When the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) meets in Jakarta this week, its urgent priority must be improving how it communicates and engages with civil society in Southeast Asia and responds to human rights issues.
ASEAN civil society, representing more than 500 million people from the region, has signaled its eagerness to harness the potential of the AICHR. But the Commission has been widely criticized as being “toothless” and lacking a clear mandate since its creation in 2009.
Human rights issues among its member states need to be prioritized and addressed.
While some member states, including Indonesia and the Philippines have shown a degree of willingness to address them, others have not been so forthcoming.
AICHR is the regional human rights body composed of government representatives from all ASEAN Member States.
At its last meeting (its 14th official meeting since its inception in 2009) the AICHR discussed a set of draft guidelines on its relations with civil society organizations, intended to improve the way the AICHR communicates and engages with civil society. But no deadline or target date has been set — or at least made public — for the finalization and adoption of these guidelines.
AICHR’s founding terms of reference failed to establish a formal procedure for engagement with civil society, and none was set up during AICHR’s initial meetings.
This is unacceptable.
Some commissioners met in their personal capacity with civil society organizations in their own countries because they understand the importance of engagement with civil society and the principles of participation and transparency.
But not all commissioners feel this way, and even those who do are constrained from expressing their views, lest they be criticized or even reprimanded by their colleagues.
Significantly, AICHR commissioners are not independent human rights experts. They are representatives of Member States, who have to answer to their respective State authorities.
The AICHR’s method of dealing with civil society too often reflects the system of patronage that is deep-rooted in many Southeast Asian countries.
The most favored groups; typically those who are not too critical of the AICHR, are given the privilege to take a peek into the workings of the AICHR and are invited to consultations and meetings.
These “favored ones”, in turn, hesitate to relay information to others or refrain from sounding too critical of the AICHR in order to maintain their position.
This creates divisions and hierarchies within the human rights movement in the region, which is regrettable and contrary to AICHR’s stated aim “to further contribute to the development of the ASEAN community post-2015”.
The failure to engage meaningfully with regional civil society has seriously hampered AICHR’s ability to provide institutional responses to key human rights issues in the region, including human rights crises in member states.
AICHR commissioners who are more open to engaging with civil society are criticized by their colleagues who see these responses as “unauthorized”.
The attempt of some commissioners to discuss key human rights issues in the region are often shot down by their less independent colleagues as “an interference in the internal affairs” of ASEAN States.
In January 2013, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), in a public statement, pointed out to the AICHR that it is within its Terms of Reference (ToR) to discuss the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone, a prominent social development advocate from Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR). The ICJ pointed to paragraph 4.11 of the ToR, under which the AICHR should “develop common approaches and positions on human rights matters of interest to the ASEAN”.
During a workshop held by the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism held in Bangkok in June 2013, the ICJ reiterated to the AICHR commissioners that the enforced disappearance of Somphone and others must be discussed as a matter of urgency. Enforced disappearances constitute gross human rights violations and crimes under international law.
Ambassador Rosario Manalo, from the Philippines, replied that the commissioner from Lao PDR should respond to ICJ’s query. But the Lao PDR commissioner invoked the principle of non-interference, saying the Lao PDR government considered the issue as meddling in its internal affairs.
The issue of enforced disappearances should be a matter of vital importance to ASEAN Member States, including the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia, which have experienced a number of cases. Interestingly, the commissioners of these three countries were the ones most open to discussing in the AICHR the issue of enforced disappearances.
The AICHR must adopt formal guidelines for engagement with civil society that allows for open, transparent and meaningful engagement.
However, such guidelines alone will not be enough, as commissioners representing particular ASEAN Member State will likely shoot down any proposal to discuss important human rights issues by invoking the non-interference principle. This is contrary both to objects of the AICHR and the pledge made by all states as far back as the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, when the universality and universal interest of human rights were affirmed.
Until all ASEAN member states make a firm commitment to addressing human rights issues, the AICHR will continue to attract criticism that it lacks credibility and the ability to effectively engage in addressing serious human rights issues in Southeast Asia.
Next year’s formation of the ASEAN Economic Community, which will formally integrate its nations, cannot be based solely on competitive economic, business and trade interests. The human rights of its citizens need to be maintained and civil society given a voice. Otherwise, the AEC will face serious international criticism.