Calls grow for review of regional human rights body

Southeast Asian human rights experts are urging a regional human rights body to be given a far stronger protection mandate as its work comes under review five years after it was created.

Southeast Asian human rights experts are urging a regional human rights body to be given a far stronger protection mandate as its work comes under review five years after it was created.

Representatives of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), however, are reluctant to discuss any strengthening measures, Yuyun Wahyuningrum, a senior adviser for the Indonesian Human Rights Working Group, told The Myanmar Times.

In late June, 115 government officials, civil society representatives and other experts from around the region met in Bangkok over two days for a second consultation meeting on possible changes to the commission’s terms of reference.

Each government was able to invite one civil society representative and one academic from their country, while ASEAN invited members of other prominent civil society groups.

Ms Yuyun said the consultation was flawed because some member states rejected civil society leaders that had previously criticised their human rights records.

Former ambassador U Kyaw Tint Swe, the current chair of AICHR and the deputy head of the Myanmar Human Rights Commission, led the government delegation.

Nevertheless, the event featured robust debate on amending the terms of reference and the “overall ambience of the dialogue was good”, Ms Yuyun said.

“During the two-day discussion, there were two schools of direction in reviewing and amending the [terms of reference] of AICHR. [The] first one was making a radical change and the second was using the existing [terms] with creative interpretation,” she said.

Officially, at least, AICHR envisions that respect for human rights shall be one of the central elements of the ASEAN Community, which is slated to come into effect in 2015.

The AICHR was established in 2009 but most observers agree it has made little progress on human rights, largely because its terms of reference are guided by the regional bloc’s policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of its members.

While the terms of reference can be reviewed after five years, giving Myanmar the opporunity, as chair of the bloc, to seek to strengthen the commission, officials say this will not happen.

U Aung Htoo, deputy director general of the ASEAN Affairs Department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Myanmar would not review the commission’s terms of reference this year because it does not want to focus on human rights issues.

He suggested a review is only likely to take place in 2016, after the ASEAN Community is launched next year.

ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) has warned that the commission’s mandate must be strengthened if it is to have any real impact.

Its president said the body has failed to bring any discernible improvement to or provide any protection for the basic rights of the people in Southeast Asia since its creation in 2009.

“We are still very, very far from a properly functioning regional human rights mechanism, but if AICHR is to bring us any closer to the concept of collective responsibility and collective prosperity, then it has to be given the mandate to act, and be independent from national governmental interference,” Eva Kusuma Sundari said in a statement.

Ma Wai Wai Nu, a Myanmar human rights activist, said reforms can be made if there is sustained pressure from civil society and international bodies, such as the United Nations and European Union. Without international pressure, ASEAN leaders have no will to address human rights issues.

One regional analyst said the commission’s main problem is that its representatives are nominated by regional governments. As a result, they stack it with people who are unlikely to speak out about rights violations.

“[AICHR’s representatives] can’t do anything that will harm the interests of their country,” said Ko Kyaw Lin Oo. “As a result they are usually quiet on human rights issues.”