Rafendi Djamin: Indonesian member of the AICHR

Posted by Marwaan Macan-Markar under ASEAN Watch on 26 October 2009

This commission belongs to all nations of ASEAN; it belongs to the people. But if governments show disrespect that affects the dignity and authority and the functioning of this commission, then it will backfire on those who are doing it.

A South-east Asian human rights mechanism launched here (Cha-am, Thailand) at a regional summit should be used by victims of rights violations to end oppression at home, says a member of this new body.

"It is the job of victims organisations and of civil society to push this body to become more explicit in terms of (human rights) protection," Rafendi Djamin, the Indonesian nominee to the regional human rights body for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), told IPS. "We have agreed to use the charter of the universal declaration of human rights as a guide."

Yet sceptics wonder how credible the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, inaugurated Friday at the 15th ASEAN summit, will be. After all, the 42-year-old regional bloc's members include military-ruled Burma and the communist-ruled Laos and Vietnam, all of which have notorious human rights record. Then there is Singapore, a one-party state that tolerates little criticism, and Brunei, an absolute monarchy.

The five other ASEAN members Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand have differing shades of democracy. To many, Indonesia ranks as the most progressive after ridding the country of the three-decade long Suharto dictatorship that ended in 1998.

The 52-year-old Rafendi was himself a victim of Suharto's oppressive rule. He was arrested and detained for three months for his work as a student leader at the University of Jakarta. Since then he has worked through the Indonesian human rights movement to end up as the coordinator of the Human Rights Working Group Indonesia, a national rights lobby.

The region's move to establish a human rights mechanism is part of a plan unveiled in the ASEAN charter to make this 10-member bloc a rules-based, integrated entity similar, in some ways, to the European Union by 2015.

IPS: Do you think the setting up of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) is a pointer to ASEAN becoming more serious about human rights?

RAFENDI DJAMIN: The fact that the 10 member-countries have accepted the ASEAN charter to set up the AICHR is a commitment to build a foundation to create respect and promote human rights. It shows a seriousness of the political leaders despite the political differences, the different levels of democracy and political development to set up a new mechanism that will look at human rights problems and challenges in our region.

IPS: But the route to setting up the AICHR is different from other regional human eights commissions in African and Latin America. The latter began after the countries in those regions endorsed a human rights charter and the commission was created to defend and enforce those human rights values. But the AICHR does not have such a charter. Why is it being done back-to- front here?

RD: The way we chose to start should not be seen as a barrier to develop a regional human rights institution, to develop principles. We had to start somewhere and get it working. In the ASEAN context it had to start with the commission first, and it is up to the commission to look at the universal declaration of human rights as a guide to improve the situation. After all, we have agreed to that in the ASEAN charter.

IPS: The terms of reference (ToR) to set up the AICHR places emphasis on examining thematic issues than investigating individual human rights violations. There is no mechanism for an individual who is a victim of abuse in, say, Burma, or Laos or Singapore to submit a complaint to your commission. Are you not giving false hopes to such victims through the AICHR?

RD: This is an area that is open to development. The AICHR does not have a mechanism to accept individual complaints, but it does not mean such a possibility will be permanent. And till then, there are other ways we can look at these concerns.

The ToR says that part of the protection function gives the AICHR the mandate to obtain information about human rights violations taking place in member states. This information can be got from government officials and even from national human rights bodies that exist in member countries. Civil society groups can also provide information through this process, including the victims' organisations.

This is an entry point for us to develop. It is the job of victims' organisations and civil society to push this commission to become more explicit in terms of protection. It is one way of measuring the record of the AICHR.

IPS: You talk of national human rights commissions in ASEAN countries helping you, but this is not the case in all countries. How do you expect countries that do not have a national investigating mechanism to let a regional body function with credibility?

RD: One should look at it the other way round. If these countries do not have national human rights commissions, then it is an opportunity for victims of human rights in these countries to turn to the AICHR. Having a national human rights commission is not a prerequisite to being part of a regional human rights mechanism. In fact, the AICHR could stimulate countries that lack a local commission to create one for their own good.

IPS: One word we keep hearing to boost the AICHR as a credible body is "promotion" of human rights. Some leaders say this will mean more awareness about human rights. But critics of the AICHR say this will mean more talk but less serious efforts to inquire into violations and protect the victims.

RD: That is a pessimistic view. One has to recognise that the protection function of the AICHR has been mentioned several times in the agreement. There is a protection function written in the 14 functions of the commission's ToR. For example, in obtaining information, we can have consultations with civil society and also meet in a country although it will not be in the context of a country visit.

IPS: You are the only member of the AICHR who has been a victim of human rights abuse while your fellow commissioners come from repressive regimes. Will it be awkward for you to sit with them?

RD: It will be very challenging. I will have to first place myself in the situation I have been before during the oppressive situations of the Suharto period. So I can sense and deal with similar situations. It will be a challenge to deal with countries that are still closed, but I am prepared to deal with them and others who do not see human rights issues the way I do.

IPS: Is there a danger that you may compromise your principles as a human rights advocate and for the sake of making AICHR appear relevant, end up as just another bureaucrat?

RD: The danger is always there. I am a human being who can be influenced, but I have tried through out my life to uphold my principles and I am still rooted in civil society and not a government official.

IPS: But given the poor human rights record of the majority of governments in ASEAN, isn't there a danger that your principles may be undermined? That you could be embarrassed by commissioners from such countries?

RD: I am not afraid to be embarrassed for the sake of defending human rights. But if there is any negative response that will undermine the dignity of this commission, I think it will be an act of suicide.

This commission belongs to all nations of ASEAN; it belongs to the people. But if governments show disrespect that affects the dignity and authority and the functioning of this commission, then it will backfire on those who are doing it.

Sources and Relevant Links:

IPS News Rafendi Djamin, Indonesian member of the ASEAN Human Rights Commission 25 October 2009

Centre of Non-traditional Security Studies (NTU) Profile of AICHR reps

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