By Simon SC Tay, TODAY, August 6 2007
ASEAN Foreign Ministers in Manila this week surprised many by agreeing on a human rights commission, after initially strong objections by Myanmar.
While this will delight human rights supporters, the Association of South-east Asian Nations may yet frustrate hopes and expectations. For while there is agreement to put a mechanism for human rights into the charter being drafted for the grouping, there is no consensus on the commission’s scope, how it will operate or even when it will start.
Hopes will run high, especially among those non-governmental organisations that have been pushing for an Asean human rights mechanism — Asean governments had raised the possibility of creating one back in 1993.
Cynics may, however, suggest that Asean’s current move is more about perception. It is likely that habits of consultationwill continue, and states remain cautious about clashing over matters solely within another’s sovereign territory.
What can be expected? How can Asean move forward, avoiding cynicism on one hand and over-ambition on the other?
The context for this new initiative is important. The grouping aims to be a community with economic, security and sociocultural pillars by 2015. To be a community, mutual understanding needs to be fostered, including on the rights of individuals — not just between governments, but also the peoples of the region. While there are universal norms of human rights, differences in the levels of economic development, religion and other characteristics can make understanding and practices vary from one society to another.
Secondly, human rights commissions and mechanisms do differ from each other. Europe has the most advanced mechanism. Citizens from one country are allowed to complain and bring cases against any country before a regional court on the full gamut of human rights.
The decisions of that regional court can override the national courts and change national laws and practices. This process that allows individuals to complain is a legal revolution in rights for Europeans emerging in parallel with the creation of a European Union.
Without a similar commitment to a political union in the immediate future, Asean cannot realistically emulate Europe. It would be like comparing apples to durians.
Asean should understand the European experience without idolising or aping it. After all, other regional human rights mechanisms exist in the Americas and Africa but work in more limited ways. In many cases, rather than emphasising court-like procedures, the systems give ample room for political negotiation and compromise.
Human rights mechanisms grow over time. At the United Nations, for example, the past decade has seen such mechanisms strengthened with the creation of a human rights commissioner and the revamp of its council. Separate tribunals have also been set up to handle specific situations such as the former Yugoslavia. While far from perfect, these have been improvements.
Asean may, similarly, begin its human rights initiative more modestly, while holding out the possibility of stronger mechanisms in the future. Where can Asean best begin?
Public education is a necessary foundation. In rural districts in some Asean member states, the understanding of human rights may be rudimentary or even non-existent. In some Asean capitals too, human rights continue to be controversial and seen as an alien, “Western” concept.
Sentiments still echo from the 1990s, when spokesmen from Singapore, Malaysia and other states spoke about “Asian values” that differed from the West.
Public education on human rights in Asean can, and should, reframe that debate. Asean’s peoples need to understand human rights and see them as being part of their own heritage and beliefs, rather than a Western imposition.
But what about taking action? A key challenge is deciding where to begin. Some will point to the problems in Myanmar. Others may emphasise issues of media freedom or the need to protect racial and religious minorities.
Perhaps one way to prioritise is to look at existing areas of agreement among Asean member states. While there are many international human rights treaties and conventions, only two have near-universal acceptance in the region.
These two conventions are on the rights of children and the elimination of discrimination against women. Asean can usefully begin by targeting the illegal traffic in women and children. More broadly, improving the rights of Asean children to education, shelter and food can help ensure the basic rights or the region’s future generation.
Another priority would seem to be where the human rights issue is not wholly within one country but has a transboundary element. Foreign workers are an example. The large flows of workers between Asean member states is likely to increase as we move towards closer economic integration.
Yet, tensions over their treatment surface regularly. In Malaysia, for example, thousands of undocumented Indonesian workers are being held by the authorities. Intra-Asean cooperation can help ensure the fair treatment of foreign workers. Frictions and fears about working abroad can be eased, and this would help economic integration.
What, then, will Asean do about human rights in Myanmar? Political sensitivities and security dimensions still exist. Ties with China, India and other major powers must also enter into the equation for any solution.
Pressing for change by Asean is needed but that is best left to political judgement by leaders and foreign ministers.
An Asean human rights commission may, however, assist by providing timely information and assessment on the human rights situation in that country.
In keeping with so much in Asean, the key to moving ahead with a human rights mechanism is to take first steps in a timely manner. But it is also important that the steps be real ones, not rhetoric or empty promises. It would also help if the steps were to be aligned with the overall ambitions of being a community. The journey ahead will be long but Asean is heading in the right direction.