Varying and longstanding traditions, cultures and religions hobble member-countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in looking at human rights as a major issue in governance, Philippine Ambassador Rosario Manalo said Friday.

“Some [member-countries] are ready, some are not [in putting human rights on top of their agenda] because, to tell you the truth, [all of them] are still in the process of getting acquainted with human rights and are still learning [how to go about treating such rights as important],” added Manalo, the head of the High-Level Panel of the regional bloc’s Human Rights Body (HRB).

Alistair MacDonald, ambassador of the European Commission to the Philippines, earlier said that the body would meet difficulties ties because of the member-countries differing perceptions of human rights.

“Not all of the member-countries are quite as committed to the idea [of human rights], but the existing traditional Asean spirit of consensus is already a significant progress. As long as there dialogue [among them], the HRB is likely to be given a mandate that will address protection as well as promotion [of such rights], and will underline the universality of human rights,” MacDonald added.
The Asean observes a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of its member-countries. It groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

The Asean way

“You can’t change society in a wink of an eye. The Asean works as one, not individually,” Manalo told a press conference at the Department of Foreign Affairs. “Besides, you can’t negotiate sovereignty.”

But the Human Rights Body, she added, could come up with policy recommendations to member-countries not protecting their people’s human rights. Manalo noted that the Asean secretary-general is empowered to report human-rights violations to the body. Set for launching in October, the body will not have any investigative powers.

The Philippine ambassador stressed that the Asean member-countries are serious in defending the human rights of their peoples.

“The Asean member-countries are sincere in making the HRB work, and I don’t think that they are playing around,” Manalo said. She pointed out that only the member-countries were able to enter Myanmar after the country was ravaged by Cyclone Nargis in May last year.

Cyclone Nargis killed more than 100,000 people in Myanmar and non-Asean countries were not able to send help because of resistance from the country’s military leaders.

Manalo disclosed that the Asean terms of reference on human rights could be done by July. She said that Asean foreign ministers have welcomed the draft version of the terms.

“They [foreign ministers] want to strengthen the protection part, but basically they all agree with [provisions of the draft],” Manalo said. She also disclosed that the terms of reference allows the rights body to raise funds for its operations. Manalo did not give figures, except that the member- countries would give equal contributions.

The Philippine ambassador said that the regional bloc is open to getting help from non-Asean countries and private institutions, “provided that there are no strings attached.”

According to Manalo, the body would not require the member-countries to put up human-rights institutions in place. Only the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have formed such institutions.
–Llanesca T. Panti, Manila Times