THE Asean Charter, unveiled at last year’s Singapore Summit, surprised many by giving attention to human rights, enshrining these as a purpose and principle.
Article 14 of the Charter promises to create a human rights body for the group. Many welcomed this as a bold step, and even much-criticised Myanmar signed off on the Charter.
Another step forward will soon be taken. Next month, a high-level panel will be set up to agree on terms of reference for the new body.
But, despite the move towards democracy in some Asean countries, others doubt the region as a whole is ready to move ahead with human rights. And, as a recent workshop in Singapore for experts, non-governmental organisations and officials revealed, differences remain.
A first point of division is whether the Asean human rights body should comprise governmental officials or independent experts. If experts are appointed, they would have the independence to be more critical of violations. In contrast, government officials may play it safer rather than jeopardise friendly relations.
A second difference of opinion is whether it should have powers to investigate complaints in countries, like a regional police. Others propose that it only promote and monitor human rights.
A third controversy is whether all member countries should be on board, or if a minority who are willing may proceed more quickly.
Yet, while there are intra-Asean differences, there are areas of agreement that hold out the possibility of moving ahead together.
There are good reasons to do so. Consensus is the basic principle for the group. While the Charter does allow for an “Asean minus X” formula, this is expressly limited to economic agreements.
Maintaining Asean unity is key, especially on high-profile issues like human rights.
Yet, louder democracies in Asean, like Indonesia and the Philippines, may not wish to move only at the pace of the more cautious countries. Creative thinking is needed to find ways so that a foundation can be agreed for all, while allowing some to go further and faster.
Optional protocol agreements are one established method used by the international community for such purposes. This could be applied to differences of opinion about the powers for the Asean human rights body.
While the Asean Charter promises both promotion and protection for human rights, a variety of tools can be used. The international community already deploys a mixed tool kit, ranging from court-like proceedings and investigations by an international criminal court, to the use of force to prevent genocide and crimes against humanity.
But softer methods are also used, like monitoring, where a state reports on its human rights record, and opens itself to comments by others. Even today, the main method is still to “name and shame”.
Asean might proceed similarly with promotion and monitoring for all states, while some, using an optional protocol, could open themselves up to investigation if there are complaints.
The composition of the human rights body could also be balanced. Rather than one or the other, there could be a politically appointed panel of high officials, as well as an additional committee of experts.
Asean can also build a strong but limited foundation that all can agree on.
This is possible for women’s and children’s rights. All Asean countries have agreed to the relevant international treaties, albeit with some reservations.
Asean has also issued a strong declaration on the need to protect the rights of migrant workers. As Asean economies have become closely integrated, the movement of people across borders has grown. Moving ahead with transboundary issues that face migrants and women, like trafficking of women for sexual purposes, could help hundreds of thousands.
In comparison, to focus on individual cases that are within the domestic politics of any country can be of limited value and invoke many sensitivities.
The High-Level Panel to be established will have much important work to do. It should consult stakeholders broadly so that the process is perceived to be open and inclusive.
Human rights are no longer an alien concept, in contrast to the talk about “Asian values” so prevalent in the ’90s. Asean should set out a long-term vision for a regional human rights body of the highest standard.
But the roadmap to that vision may need to be travelled step-by-step so that all countries join in that journey. Asean should avoid the situation that some race ahead while others — perhaps Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar — stand still. Only if Asean proceeds with some fundamental baselines can human rights help unify the promised regional community.