BANGKOK | March 1,2009 | Malaysianinsider - Inter Press News Service
Plans to create a regional human rights body for Asean, the 10-nation South-east Asian bloc, are threatening to expose the gulf that separates countries that seek to respect political and civil liberties and the notorious violators.
An incident on Saturday during a summit of Association of South-east Asian Nations revealed the tough road that lies ahead for the high-level panel of experts tasked with drafting the terms of reference (ToR) for this body.
Burmese Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had threatened to walk out of a face-to-face meeting government leaders were to have with civil society representatives from across the region – if the latter included human rights activists from Burma and Cambodia.
A compromise struck to enable the 20-minute meeting to go ahead during the 14th Asean summit, being held in this resort town south of Bangkok, ensured that the Burmese military regime and the increasingly authoritarian Cambodian government got their way.
The eight-member group from South-east Asian civil society organisations (CSOs) attended the dialogue with the region’s presidents and prime ministers sans Khin Ohmar, head of the Network for Democracy and Development in Burma, and Pen Somony, programme coordinator of Cambodia Volunteers for Civil Society.
“It is disappointing but not unexpected,” Khin Ohmar told IPS. “Asean leaders need to take into serious consideration what the (Burmese) regime is all about. The Burmese regime’s rejection shows it is not serious about Asean’s push for a human rights body.”
For his part, the Cambodian premier not only objected to Pen Somony’s name but also wanted to insert a Cambodian activist of his own choosing to be part of the CSO team, according to a member of civil society who participated in the dialogue.
“The human rights body was discussed during our dialogue,” said Sinapan Samydorai, convenor of the task force on Asean migrant workers, who was part of the CSO delegation. “We do want a body that is affective.”
In fact, the civil society delegation was surprised by a welcome nod given by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to the clamour by activists that the people of Asean should be seen as partners rather than as obstacles in the regional alliance’s quest to establish its new identity as a people-centred group.
“The Vietnamese leader said that while the non-interference principle (of Asean) holds true, he welcomes the interface (with civil society),” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, who moderated the dialogue on Saturday afternoon between CSOs and government leaders.
Asean, which was established in 1967 to stem the spread of communism during the height of the Cold War, includes Brunei, Burma (or Myanmar), Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Last December, Asean adopted a charter to make the regional entity a rules-based body and more “people centred.”
But the promotion and protection of human rights varies among countries. Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand are more open to such precepts, while Malaysia and Cambodia have a mixed record. Brunei, Burma, Laos, Singapore and Vietnam suffer from a human rights deficit in varying degrees.
Bridging this gap is a daunting challenge if Article 14 of the Asean charter is to be met. That article is the need to establish an Asean human rights body (AHRB) to promote and protect human rights across the region.
“The establishment of an Asean human rights body (AHRB) would be based on three main principles,” Sihasak Phunagketkeow, a senior Thai diplomat and chairman of the high- level panel to draft the ToR, told journalists on Saturday. “We are talking of building and strengthening the human rights regime in the region.”
The three principles are: realistically “bear in mind the diversity in Asean,” establish a credible AHRB through “consistency with internationally accepted human rights standards and norms,” and develop AHRB “continually” through an “evolutionary process”.
During the current summit, Sihasak chaired an hour-long meeting with Asean foreign ministers to share the progress of the ToR, the final draft of which is to be presented at a July ministerial meeting in Thailand.
“We hope to establish this body at the next Asean summit to be held later in the year in Thailand,” Sihasak revealed. “I don’t think this is a PR (public relations) exercise.”
But the region’s human rights activists have reservations about the confidence of the Thai diplomat that Asean will have a human rights body on par with similar regional rights mechanisms in Africa, Latin America and Europe.
Doubts stem from the manner the ToR has been treated – as a secret document, not open to public scrutiny – and the insistence of the drafters on placing greater emphasis on promoting human rights awareness than protection from rights violations where abuses can be investigated.
“This [the ToR] is supposed to be a public document, but they are keeping it a secret,” says YuYun Wahyuningrum, an Indonesian national who is the East Asia programme manager at the Asia Forum for Human Rights and Development, a regional rights lobby. “We want the document to be out so that we can make our input and it will be the basis of a public debate.”