ASEAN Human Rights Body Launched Amid Controversy

Posted by Simon Roughneen under ASEAN Watch on 23 October 2009

At 11.30 pm on Thursday night, Thai foreign ministry officials informed the delegates–– elected at a meeting of the Asean People's Forum over Oct. 18-20––that the governments of Burma, Singapore, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines had vetoed the chosen NGO representatives.

CHA-AM, Thailand — Pictures beamed into the Asean summit media center from the informal foreign ministers dinner showed Burma's Foreign Minister Nyan Win relaxing tableside with his counterparts from the regional bloc.

Later, as Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva formally launched the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), the six heads of government present joined hands with the 10 commission members on stage, in what was meant to be a highlight of the Asean summit.

Despite the fanfare, the real worth of the AICHR already has been widely questioned. Since the terms of reference for the body were announced earlier this year, the AICHR has been criticized for having a limited mandate.

Aung Din, the executive director of the US Campaign for Burma who testified before the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Oct. 21, told The Irrawaddy, "It will be run by government officials. Burma, along with Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Brunei, will resist and block any meaningful action proposed by other more open members."

While the AICHR will ostensibly work to promote the concept of human rights, it lacks any method to sanction member states for human rights abuses.

Abhisit acknowledged as much in his launch speech, noting "criticisms by analysts" of the terms of reference for the new body.

As current Asean chair, the Thai prime minister said that the Cha-am/Hua Hin Declaration launching the new commission "showed the commitment of Asean-member states to realize the historic quest of the people of Southeast Asia for freedom."

Activists said that commitment was rendered hollow very quickly, however. Launching the AICHR, Abhisit said that "civil society groups should rest assured that you now have a partner that works for you."

However, 30 minutes later, a delegation of Asean civil society organizations denounced the new human rights commission, saying its attitude to civil society "sabotaged the credibility" of the AICHR.

Earlier Friday morning, a meeting between civil society members from Asean-member states and the heads of government was stillborn.

At 11.30 pm on Thursday night, Thai foreign ministry officials informed the delegates–– elected at a meeting of the Asean People's Forum over Oct. 18-20––that the governments of Burma, Singapore, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines had vetoed the chosen NGO representatives.

The Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian representatives faced no obstacle from their governments.

In solidarity with their five rejected counterparts, they refused to attend the meeting, leaving the remaining delegates––all hand-picked by the governments––to attend.

Burmese delegate Khin Ohn Mar said that "this attempt to undermine the civil society meeting goes back to the Asean People's Forum, when the Burmese generals sent two former high-ranking police officers to the meeting, and they sought to undermine discussion of all the human rights violations that have been taking place in Burma for many years."

Abhisit said that US $200,000 was available to fund the AICHR, and he hoped more money from Asean and other sources would be made available.

Asean will review the commission's terms of reference every five years to "further develop and strengthen the mandate and function of the body," according to the Thai prime minister, who said that critics should not see the AICHR as "an end in itself, but a work in progress."

The UN has urged Asean leaders to make the human rights body "credible." However, as Aung Din pointed out, the AICHR could "make Asean more shameful than impressive."

Given that its launch has been juxtaposed with a blatant snub to NGOs representatives from five member-states, this seems to be the case at the outset.

Kraisak Choonhavan, a Democrat MP in Thailand and chair of the Asean Interparliamentary Myanmar (Burma) Caucus, told The Irrawaddy that "this [refusal to meet civil society] bodes badly for the region."

Perhaps the most surprising snub was delivered to Sr. Cres Lucero, the executive director of Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, who said, "Asean governments are undermining the fundamentals not only of the AICHR, but of the Asean Charter, which they themselves set up."

Earlier, reacting to the launch of the AICHR, the Philippine government nominee, Ambassador Rosario G. Manalo, said, "We are very happy today. This is a dream come true."

Of the 10 commissioners who will comprise AICHR, eight are government appointees. Only Indonesia and Thailand allowed human rights bodies to nominate representatives to the new commission.

Sinapan Samdorai, the convenor of the Task Force on Asean Migrant Workers in Singapore, said his government refused to sanction his presence at the meeting.

He told The Irrawaddy, "Singapore has adopted Asean's lowest common denominator here, by aping the anti-democratic tactics used by the Burmese junta."

After today's events, any expectations that Asean can use this summit to push the Burmese junta into some new concessions on political prisoners or a review of its 2008 Constitution seem far-fetched at this juncture.

Kraisak Choonhavan said, "To outsiders, it must seem that Burma is the most powerful country in Asean, able to dictate the agenda of meetings at will. Moreover, this allows other countries that do not want to respect rights or implement democracy to hide behind this disturbing trend."

Sources and Relevant Links:

The Irrawaddy Asean Human Rights Body Launched Amid Controversy 23 October 2009

The Irrawaddy Asean Snubs Nominees from Peoples' Forum 23 October 2009

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