ASIA: Human rights body’s shaky beginnings

HUA HIN, 26 October 2009 (IRIN) – After only a few days Southeast Asia’s inter-governmental human rights body is already being criticized over its terms of reference as well as its ability to have any impact on human rights in Myanmar.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) launched its Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) on 23 October with the signing of the Cha-am Hua Hin Declaration at the 15th ASEAN summit held in Hua Hin, Thailand, over the weekend.

Thailand’s Prime Minister and ASEAN chairman Abhisit Vejjajiva said it “showed the commitment of ASEAN member-states to realize the historic quest of the people of Southeast Asia for freedom”.

But critics say its mandate is limited and that its undertaking to “promote human rights within the regional context, bearing in mind national and regional particularities and mutual respect for different historical, cultural and religious backgrounds” does not go far enough, given that Myanmar continues to be cited by human rights watchdogs as one of the world’s worst violators.

Kraisak Choonhavan, chairman of the ASEAN Inter-parliamentary Myanmar Caucus, said the country’s military government had yet to demonstrate a willingness to adhere to principles of democratic governance under the ASEAN charter.

And ASEAN’s long-held assertion that Myanmar’s political and human rights issues were internal affairs was no longer applicable, particularly since such problems had affected other countries in the region, he said. Engaging with the military

According to Charm Tong of the Shan Women’s Action Network in Myanmar, the military has stepped up operations against ethnic groups in the east ahead of next year’s election, resulting in the displacement of thousands to neighbouring Thailand and China.

Western sanctions are in place, although the US has reversed its previous policy by saying it would talk to the junta.

ASEAN has typically stressed non-interference in the internal affairs of its member states, with a notable exception in August, when a statement issued by the Thai PM in his role as ASEAN chairman expressed “deep disappointment” with the sentencing of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to an additional 18 months house arrest.

Additional challenges

Other critics cite the composition of the AICHR.

According to Debbie Stothard, speaking on behalf of the ASEAN People’s Forum, a network of NGOs, eight of the 10 commissioners are government appointees, with only Indonesia and Thailand allowing human rights experts and lawyers to select their commissioners.

Of the 10 ASEAN member states, only Indonesia is regarded by US-based watchdog Freedom House as a fully-fledged democracy, with other states ranging from flawed partial democracies to states with little freedom of speech or assembly.

In his closing remarks at the summit, ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan attributed the divergent attitudes towards NGOs among ASEAN member-states to “different rules and regulations, which led to a differing view on how to appoint the civil society representatives”.

Last year, ASEAN launched a charter that pledges to reform the bloc into a European Union-style entity by 2015.The human rights body was created as part of this initiative.

However, according to Bridget Welsh, a professor of Southeast Asian studies at Singapore Management University, the birth pangs of the AICHR do not bode well for ASEAN development in general.

“The handling of the ASEAN human rights body seriously undermines the credibility of the organization and simultaneously raises questions about the transformation of the regional architecture of the organization,” she told IRIN.

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