CSO pressure forcing AHRB into a 'make or break' period

Posted by Kavi Chongkittavorn under ASEAN Watch on 29 June 2009

The Asean-based civil society organisations (CSO) are working day and night urging the drafters to include provisions to protect the human rights of 575 million Asean citizens.

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. After the meeting, they are to transmit the draft to their foreign ministers for approval at their scheduled meeting in Phuket in mid-July.

But there is a big hitch. The Asean-based civil society organisations (CSO) are working day and night urging the drafters to include provisions to protect the human rights of 575 million Asean citizens.

For weeks, the CSO and human rights activists have sent open letters to all drafters and their foreign ministers, endorsed by more than 200 civil societies, urging them to include a protection mandate in the draft.

The CSO groups want the AHRB to have the power to carry out country visits and investigate abuses.

They also call for a universal periodic review of the human rights situation of Asean members and the inclusion of independent experts in the AHRB.

Over the past five years, civil society groups have learned quickly effective ways to engage Asean bureaucrats and mindsets, especially during the campaign on the charter's drafting process. They are now more persistent and consistent with their demands-much to the chagrin of member countries which have few civil society groups or none at all.

With the final putsch coming at this juncture, it could render two immediate repercussions-to the chair and Asean itself.

Thailand, as the current Asean chair, has to ensure the draft can be consolidated and approved by consensus within such a short time with all new proposals taken into consideration. After all, it has been the chair's continued encouragement and persuasion that |the CSO should partake in the process as part of the effort to transform |Asean into a people-oriented organisation.

The chair has been set to announce the establishment of AHRB during the upcoming summit in the third week of October. Failure to do so would be disastrous for the chair.

The aborted Pattaya summit has |continued to haunt the Abhisit government.

While the CSO demand makes sense and is necessary, it could further complicate the already agreed text and drag on the debates. Some Asean members are already up in arms against the CSO proposals saying they are too progressive. If the draft is being amended, it will not be approved in time.

Others have expressed serious concern that the plan to establish AHRB, without similar commitment to international norms and standards, would tarnish the grouping's image and undermine the Asean Charter.

At the previous meeting among drafters, Indonesia was assertive in pushing for the inclusion of a protection mandate in the ToR--subsequently embraced by the CSO community--much to the surprise of Asean colleagues.

With growing confidence in its vibrant democracy and possible return of incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for the second-term, Indonesia has been pushing quite rigorously for rights protection.

In the past three years, Indonesia has been in the forefront of Asean in promoting democratic values and development-in Southeast Asian style. Indonesia,apart from being the world's largest Muslim country,is very proud of a newly acquired tag, as the world's third largest democracy.

The Indonesian Foreign Ministry has taken this role very seriously. Two years ago, the ministry allocated a huge fund to promote public diplomacy and the branding of Indonesia. "This is no longer Suharto's Indonesia, it is a new Indonesia," Umar Hadi, Director for Public Diplomacy, told the author |over the weekend in Jakarta. He had helped set up the Bali Forum for Democracy.

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. In case of any postponement,Thailand will have to face another beating.

Vietnam, as Asean's next chair, is known to be unenthusiastic with the ongoing debate on protection mandates.

The drafting process could drag on. Both Brunei and Cambodia, which resume chairmanship after Vietnam respectively in 2011 and 2012, have shown recalcitrance over the emphasis on human rights protection.

Albeit the current chair's preponderance for more human rights protection, including the right of individuals to make appeals to the AHRB if local remedies are exhausted, Thailand has to be pragmatic and strike a balance between the myriad desires of members and civil society groups. Otherwise, it would be extremely difficult to reach a compromise over the text.

Sources and Relevant Links:

The Nation Activist pressure forcing AHRB into a 'make or break' period 29 June 2009

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