Asean Human Rights Body: “Toothless” entity?

Updated On: Mar 02, 2009

Another step has been taken toward realizing an Asean Human Rights Body over the weekend at the Asean summit at Hua Hin, Thailand.

A draft terms of reference (TOR) that outlines the powers and scope for the proposed body was agreed upon by Asean leaders. The TOR is a crucial step underpinning the formation of the human rights body, and represents a long process of setting up a Human Rights Body in Asean.

The Working Group for an Asean Human Rights Mechanism was set up in 1995 to submit proposals and recommendations for a human rights mechanism. After submissions of proposals, a draft agreement and a proposed structure for the human rights commission in 1998 and 2000. A provision in the Asean Charter included a human rights commission as an organ of the bloc in 2007. At the summit, the Asean leaders agreed to aim to for an operational human rights body by the end of the year.

This history seems to promise slow, but steady progress in the region’s regulation of human rights. The political reality is that a high level of mistrust emanates from Asean governments toward their citizenry and the concept of regionalism, and it is unlikely that substantive progress will be made in the near future within this context.

At the weekend’s summit, events signaled that Asean leaders were not ready to acknowledge the regional body as an authoritative voice on human rights practice, nor the participation of civil society in human rights discourse.

According to the TOR, the human rights body would not be given fact-finding or investigative roles, neither would the proposed body have the power to prosecute violators. Instead, the TOR stressed a "constructive and non-confrontational approach" in its mission to promote and protect human rights, an apparent rejection of calls by international watchdogs for the 10-nation grouping to take a more aggressive stand against abuse within member states.

"I understand it is indeed toothless," said Debbie Stothard, coordinator of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, a non-governmental organization.

In an indication of the Asean leaders’ unwillingness to engage with civil society, the first civil society dialogue between civil society activists and Asean leaders was marred by the dismissal of two prominent activists, Khin Ohnmar, a well-known Myanmar activist, and Pen Somony representing Cambodia Volunteers for Civil Society. The prime ministers of Myanmar and Cambodia had threatened to boycott the dialogue if activists from their countries took part.

The TOR will not be released to the media and civil society organizations, due to Cambodia’s veto. Other members argued that opening up the draft to public scrutiny would be tantamount to opening up a can of worms.

The Straits Times, “Difficult to set up human rights body”, 2 March 2009.

My Sinchew, “Human Rights Body: taking the slow boat”, 1 March 2009, http://www.mysinchew.com/node/21747

Times of India, SEAsian human rights body lacks powers: Draft, 28 Feb 2009, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/World/Rest-of-World/SEAsian-human-rig...

AHN, Southeast Asian Leaders Bar Human Rights Activists From Talks, 28 February 2009, http://www.allheadlinenews.com/articles/7014250057

Related Article