The 7th Workshop on the ASEAN Regional Mechanism on Human Rights was held at the Amara Sanctuary Resort, Singapore on 12-13 June, 2008. Supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore and co-hosted by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) and the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism, it is the first conference of the sort ever to be held in Singapore. More than 60 delegates, from NGOs, think-tanks, government of Singapore and all other ASEAN member countries participated in the discussion about establishing an ASEAN human rights body.
Raymond Lim, Singapore Minister for Transport and the Second Minister for Foreign Affairs addressed three broad criteria for establishing an ASEAN human rights body in his opening speech, emphasizing that the new institution “must recognize the political history and policy of established ASEAN tradition,” “can only be achieved with a revolutionary approach,” and that “no artificial deadlines should be set just for the sake of setting them.”
Despite these broad suggestions, the issue of human rights has divided the ASEAN community more than any other. According to H.E. Prof. Tommy Koh, while Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand already have national human rights committees, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam are not enthusiastic about making progress in this direction. Singapore and Brunei belong to neither of these camps, and have failed to bridge the gap between the two. The blurred boundary between rights and responsibilities, as well as whether an ASEAN human rights body should preside over each ASEAN member state, are two areas where no consensus has been made.
The workshop further discusses the establishment of an ASEAN commission on the promotion and protection of the rights of women and children, as well as an ASEAN instrument on migrant workers. The rifts in this workshop appear first to be whether ASEAN should use the international standard or develop its own standard of human rights. While some delegates advocate the former view because ASEAN is part of the international community, others argue that since human rights issue has always been political, the ASEAN human rights body should first refer to the political institutions in this region. The other point on which delegates disagree with each other is whether victims of human rights abuses can wait for a step-by-step approach at setting up an ASEAN human rights body.
During the last session, delegates discussed and debated both the general and specific recommendations regarding the establishment of an ASEAN human rights body to conclude the two-day workshop. The general recommendations restate the importance of ASEAN governments abiding by and strengthening existing human rights norms, of their working with international and regional human rights instruments, of launching National Human Rights Institutions (NHRI), and of establishing a binding legal instrument on the rights of migrant workers on the basis of the Migrant Worker Declaration. The specific recommendations include, but are not limited to, the role of the ASEAN human rights body as having the right to advise ASEAN member countries and conduct investigations upon complaints, public education on human rights, further communication among the ASEAN human rights body, NGOs, NHRIs and other stakeholders, clarification of the definition of migrant workers, etc. The workshop also recognizes that although the ASEAN human rights body will be an independent institution characteristically ASEAN, it should not duplicates, nor contradicts itself with regards to the works of other international organizations or treaties.
SIIA Chairman Simon Tay, Prof. and Co-Chair of the regional Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism Vitit Muntarbhorn, H.E. Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, former ASEAN Secretary-General Rodolfo C. Severino, and representatives from many other institutions took part in the discussion and the drafted the final recommendations. Although no detailed roadmap has come out of this workshop, delegates generally agreed that people’s economic, social and cultural rights cannot advance without guaranteed political and civil rights. In order to promote and protect the fundamental freedom of human beings and build an ASEAN community of compassionate sharing, good government and the rule of law are the key.
Despite the uncertain future, the human rights issue in ASEAN has come a long way. Quoting one participant, two years ago, nobody could have imagined that a human rights discussion would be held in Singapore. The recommendations drawn towards the end of the workshop will be presented at the ASEAN ministerial meeting scheduled this July for a possible collective incentive to establish an ASEAN human rights body.
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