Asean Lawmakers Blast Human Rights Commission

A group of Southeast Asian lawmakers has issued a blistering statement saying the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ human rights commission has failed to bring any discernible improvement to or provide any protection for basic rights since its inception in 2009 and must be radically changed to strengthen its independence.

The human rights commission is holding a two-day session in Bangkok with civil society groups and other stakeholders regarding a review of its terms of reference on its terms of reference. The consultations are take placing against the backdrop of a coup by the Thai military that resulted in the temporary jailing of more than 300 people on both sides of Thailand’s badly split society as well drastic curtailment of press freedoms, intimidation of the international press and threats against freedom of expression.

Since its inception as a loosely knit talking shop in 1967, Asean has never sought to go after any of its members on their approach to human rights. Indeed, when Myanmar came into Asean in 1997, it was one of the most repressive dictatorships on the planet. The members have sought to unify the region under what was called a “the Asean Way” based on “non-interference, informality, minimal institutionalization, consultation and consensus, non-use of force and non-confrontation.” While Myanmar has been a notable success in turning towards democracy, other members such as Cambodia and Vietnam remain unrepentantly dictatorial.

Thus as it has in a long string of Thai coups, Asean chose not to comment on the current crackdown Thailand. The closest it has come to any statement at all relating to Thai politics was last December in the middle of continuing turmoil when the organization issued a statement on calling “on all parties concerned to resolve the current situation through dialogue and consultations in a peaceful and democratic manner.”

The human rights commission is “still very, very far from a properly functioning regional human rights mechanism,” said Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights President Eva Kusuma Sundari in a prepared release. But, she said, if the intergovernmental commission on human rights “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: its representatives must represent the people of Southeast Asia, not the governments.”

The parliamentarians group is not an official Asean organization. It is instead a membership-based organization of like-minded elected parliamentarians and ‘influential persons’ from member countries throughout the region.

“We, as elected parliamentarians, believe that human rights only have meaning if people are able to exercise them,” according to their press release. “However, we also would like to state our disappointment with the approach to the position of some of the representatives over this same period. Some appear to have seen their role as primarily that of defending and deflecting possible human rights concerns away from their member countries, rather than that of upholding and furthering the protection of human rights across the region, irrespective of where violations take place and who the victims or perpetrators are.”

“We are extremely concerned that it is becoming more and more difficult and dangerous for our constituents to perform their work in defending the human rights of fellow citizens in the Asean region,” the parliamentarians said. “Many human rights defenders risk their lives to battle against injustices, often committed by officers of the state, as well as representatives of private companies and non-state armed groups among others. This situation is worsened with the lack of sufficient human rights protections in some countries, and to date the human rights commission has not offered any further protection at the regional level for these human rights defenders and victims of human rights violations.”

The lack of redress for human rights violations both at the national and regional levels is “both symptomatic of and a contributing factor to the widespread problem of impunity in ASEAN: without addressing these fundamental concerns for regional respect for and protection of human rights, the process of building an ASEAN Community is rendered more or less meaningless,” the parliamentarians said.

They requested an emergency protection mechanism for human rights, such as a precautionary measures mechanism to give citizens have direct communication with the system, such as appointment of special rapporteurs/independent experts that can function as the eyes and ears of the regional human rights machinery and in the detection of early warning signs of potential abuses and rights violations. In addition, the human rights commission “should have a mandate to reduce the risk of human rights abuses, denounce human rights violation and seek States’ accountability on their human rights obligations” with representatives entirely independent of political or governmental control and influence, right through from the process of the selection and appointment of country Representatives to the exercising of its collective mandate to protect human rights.

The Parliamentarians said they would raise the same concerns at the national level in their respective parliaments and with their legislative and executive branches of government to raise support for an strengthening of the mandate of AICHR as well as its independence. The (meeting on the terms of reference) presents a valuable opportunity to identify and set those key goals that will make Asean, and all its individual member states, stronger, more stable, more prosperous and more united, the parliamentarian group said.