Over 200 civil society organisations, activists and academics have dispatched a letter to the high-profile ASEAN working committee drafting the Terms of Reference (ToR) of the ASEAN Human Rights Body (AHRB) to make it an "effective" mechanism.
The ToR has been criticized for the lack of power it grants the regional entity to investigate rights violations among member countries, and for the absence of independent human rights experts to be on the body. There is also a call for the AHRB to have regular reviews of the human rights situation in the region.
"We hear that these three demands have not been met," says Yuyun Wahyuningrum, East Asia programme manager for FORUM-ASIA, a Bangkok- based regional rights lobby. "There is opposition from Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia. Even Singapore and Malaysia have said our demands are difficult."
If the AHRB is not granted these powers, it would lag behind national human rights bodies in the region, such as Indonesia and the Philippines.
"The power to investigate human rights violations is the first mandate of the Philippines human rights commission," says Cres Lucero, deputy executive director of the Manila-based Task Force Detainees of the Philippines. "It helps with a witness protection programme and is committed and has a capacity building plan."
"The credibility of any human rights body will be judged on its power to investigate," she added during a telephone interview from the Philippines capital. "It is disappointing that the AHRB will be weaker than the national human rights bodies."
After months of debate and negotiation, the ten drafters of the terms of reference for the Asean Human Rights Body (TOR-AHRB) are supposed to finalise the text when they meet again in 10 days in Chiang Mai.
If the draft ToR-AHRB is not agreed on in Chiang Mai, which is highly possible, there will be a delay. Indonesia,for one, prefers this option because it would improve the draft over time. However, future chairs of ASEAN, Vietnam, Brunei and Cambodia, which resume chairmanship after Vietnam respectively in 2011 and 2012, have shown recalcitrance over the emphasis on human rights protection.
IPS, SOUTHEAST ASIA: Regional Rights Body Dismissed as "Toothless", 27 June 2009, http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=47394
The Nation, Activist pressure forcing AHRB into a 'make or break' period , June 29 2009,http://www.nationmultimedia.com/2009/06/29/opinion/opinion_30106257.php