Vientiane – Asean appears to have taken the first step towards creating a regional human rights body by agreeing to consider establishing a commission on the rights of women and children. An Asean official described the decision as a "happy day for human rights" – given the fact that human rights have long been a contentious issue in a region known for its frequent rights’ violations.
"It will mean addressing the needs and the problems of women and children, the most vulnerable groups in society," said Mr Marzuki Darusman, an Indonesian legislator and co-chair of an Asean human rights working group, on July 25 in the Laotian capital, where the Asean Ministerial Meeting was being held.
"We’re going to be engaged in looking into the setting up of commissions for women and children," AFP quoted Mr Marzuki as telling reporters after a meeting with Asean officials.
Asked whether the women's and children's commission would lead to a full regional human rights body, he said: "That would be our hope."
The region's highest-profile victim of rights abuses is Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest despite repeated pleas by regional leaders for her release.
Mr Marzuki said the working group intends to hold more frequent meetings with Asean officials and to step up coordination with local rights commission in the region to help promote their work.
Mr Basil Fernando, executive director of the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission, said talk of a regional rights commission reflected a relatively new willingness within the region to critically look at itself.
"Asean is going through a period of change, definitely, in a positive way in the sense that there is much more critical thinking about the governance," he said.
Mr Fernando added that pressure from human rights groups and the region's legal community will help determine the speed at which a commission is created, and its effectiveness.
Indonesia, Asean's largest member, has been leading a push within the 10-member grouping – which subscribes to the principle of non-interference in each others' affairs - to create a regional rights commission.
Indonesia's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Marty Natalegawa, said: "If we can put our house in order in terms of respecting the highest standards of human rights, then there will not be any cause or justification for others to come into our house."
* SEAsia takes ‘breakthrough’ step towards rights body (The Manila Times, July 26)