Human rights will appear in Charter as ASEAN stresses unity and consensus

Updated On: Aug 03, 2007

Overcoming the initial reluctance amongst some member states, the foreign ministers of ASEAN have agreed to a human rights body into the forthcoming Charter, while simultaneously assuring all concerned parties that consensus and consultation will remain the priority mode of decision making.

In keeping with the ASEAN way, the key is small, slow steps. Beginning with gentle rhetoric, which led to respectful closed-door discussions, and later slightly more open discussions, ASEAN is headed in the right direction with its newest pledge, if vague, to establish a human rights commission.Eventually, said the Jakarta Post, this will “open up the possibility for the establishment of a regional human rights commission, which would have the authority to assess a country's human rights situation and investigate human rights violations in member countries.”

Many Western critics have been dissatisfied with what they perceive as ASEAN’s lackadaisical attitude toward Myanmar. “ASEAN doesn't like confrontation ... Those who are not in the region do not understand that,” said Ambassador Rosario Romulo. ASEAN leaders have on occasion, during closed door meetings, expressed concern for Myanmar’s human rights situation, including its imprisonment of political opponents. On Tuesday, ASEAN leaders reproved Myanmar’s “slow pace of change” and said it should “show tangible progress” that would lead to a peaceful transition from autocracy to democracy. According to AP, while they did not specify Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, they issued a statement saying “We continue to express concern on the detention of all political detainees and reiterate our calls for their early release.” Human Rights Watch Asiadirector Brad Adams was reported by ABC News saying that “ASEAN members are now more publicly outspoken about Burmathan a lot of western countries.”

Indeed, slow-moving though ASEAN’s consultative character may be, methods of peer pressure appear to be having positive results. On Monday, Myanmar Foreign Minister U Nyan Win spoke out against the establishment of a regional commission, saying that if ASEAN really cared for human rights, each member country ought to apply it to themselves. His comment is understandable, since ASEAN states aside from Myanmar suffer from varying degrees of civil or political oppression. Reported New Straits Times, this surprised the other ministers since certain members already had their own human rights commissions. Malaysia Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar replied "I hope Myanmar, too, will form its human rights body", to which U Nyan Win smiled and nodded. Likewise, the Thai foreign minister recognised that the coup ousting Thaksin was a “glitch”, and agreed that coups should be banned in the ASEAN Charter. These are all encouraging signs in a region whose short history has seen civil and political rights being sidelined when deemed necessary, and for which coups are not uncommon.

Despite this new surge of human rights rhetoric, ASEAN remains committed to consultation and consensus, which to some appears contradictory to any ambitious reform. Head of the ASEAN Charter’s Task Force Rosario Manalo said that human rights would be dealt with “ASEAN way”, without divisive moves such as sanctions or expulsion threats.She was quoted in the Manila Bulletin saying “You see, we are trying to bring about unity in the region. We are building a community and therefore we work together as one. We don’t want to put provisions that would put us in conflict”.  The Charter thus may not transform the nature of the organization. Said Romulo to Businessworld, “We're not going to have any phraseology that will lead to the disintegration of the region… ASEAN will be more like the United Nations, an intergovernmental body…No one will agree to a supranational body.”

Trevor Wilson, Australia's ambassador to Burma from 2000-2003, said that ASEAN’s non-interference policy and tradition of consensus "will mean that if one member country objects to an issue or wording or a certain action, that will be enough to stymie any decisive action. He added that the human rights mechanism, if worked out, will adopt a “lowest-common-denominator approach”.

Perhaps there is room for change, even for the haloed tradition of consensus. Although the drafter charter declares that “all decisions of ASEAN shall be by way of consensus,” Manalo said that if consensus could not be found, ASEAN heads could choose another form of decision-making, such as by a voting system.

So at least ASEAN is headed in the right direction, even if the horizons are murky. Secretary General of the Forum for Democracy in Burma Naing Aung said “It is just the beginning and Asean ministers have yet to decide the terms of reference and other specifics with regard to the human rights body.” International relations expert Hariyadi Wirawan said that while the proposal to start a regional human rights mechanism was encouraging, the problem is now in determining its scope and authority. “It will be difficult given the wide spectrum of political orientation of ASEAN members. We have the communist state ofVietnam, the junta-ran states of Myanmarand Thailandand quasi-democratic Singapore. However, we do have Indonesia and the Philippines, both of which are relatively advanced in their human rights affairs and democracy,” he said to the Jakarta Post. Thus, the proposal was easier than some expected, but the execution will be far trickier. With its inclusion in the Asean Charter, at least there are new grounds for debating the boundaries and inclusions of human rights, and legitimate pressure on Asean leaders to respect them. (2 Aug 2007)


Myanmar(Burma): Activists applaud formation of Asean human rights body (Thai News Service, 2nd Aug 2007)

Thailand backs regional proposal to ban coups despite recent putsch (AP, 1st Aug 2007)

Experts, MPs welcome right body in proposed charter (The Jakarta Post, 1st Aug 2007)

ASEAN ministers urge early release of detainees in Myanmar(Channel Newsasia, 1st Aug 2007)

Changes will come, but at Asean's pace (New Straits Times, 1st Aug 2007)

ASEAN leaders to decide on charter's final makeup (BusinessWorld, 1st Aug 2007)

Rights violators to be treated ‘ASEAN way' (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 1st Aug 2007)

Asean is maturing (Straits Times, 1st Aug 2007)

Tough task ahead on human rights (The Star, 1st Aug 2007)

ASEAN bites bullet on human rights (ABC News, 1st Aug 2007)

Human Security Act at home in the Asean(Manila Standard Today, 1st Aug 2007)

ASEAN Charter ready for approval in September (Manila Bulletin, 1st Aug 2007)

Burmaput on the spot at ASEAN (AFP, 1st Aug 2007)

ASEAN pledges to building caring and sharing community (Thai News Service, 1st Aug 2007)

ASEAN urges Myanmar to make progress in implementing democracy (AP, 31st July 2007)

ASEAN braces for hurdles in formation of human rights body (AP, 31st July 2007)

No Provision On Sanction Or Suspension In The ASEAN Charter (Bernama, 31st July 2007)

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