The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), an international human rights organisation based in Geneva, Switzerland, on Sunday called on the newly-established ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) to seriously address housing rights violations in the region.

The call came as the AICHR meets in Kuala Lumpur in its second-ever meeting, after being established by ASEAN in October 2009.

Since its establishment, the Commission has been dogged by criticism that it is “toothless”, as it does not have the power to investigate cases of human rights violations in the region.

“Tens of millions of people in Southeast Asia today endure various levels of housing rights violations and insecurity of tenure. Most of them are poor and the vulnerable,” said Sammy Gamboa, COHRE’s Asia Programme Officer, speaking from the site of the meeting in Kuala Lumpur.

According to COHRE, housing rights violations – including forced evictions – continue to be one of the most intractable human rights issues in the region, and a major human rights challenge for the Commission in the region.

“It will be interesting to see how the AICHR – ostensibly set up to apply, promote and protect human rights in Southeast Asia – will handle the housing rights crisis in the region, which is mainly a result of a regional governments’ economic and development policies, widespread poverty, and marginalization and exclusion of the majority of Southeast Asia’s poor,” said Sammy Gamboa.

COHRE warned the AICHR that the construction of mega-projects and resource-extraction activities dispossess vulnerable people of their homes and land, and push them away from sources of subsistence.

The organization said that violations of the right to adequate housing are compounded by the prevailing climate of impunity in the region, along with widespread corruption in many ASEAN countries.

COHRE said that in Cambodia, land and housing rights violations have become one of the most prevalent forms of human rights violation following the destruction of the country’s land and property records in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge rule. Tens of thousands have been dispossessed of their lands, dwellings and properties by powerful economic and political forces identified with the country’s elite and their allies in big business. For example, more than 3,000 families living around Boeung Kak Lake in Phnom Penh have suffered or are currently threatened with forced eviction in the context of a land development project that involves filling the lake.

In the Philippines, COHRE welcomed the commitment of the new Philippine government to respect the rights of the urban poor to adequate housing, according to a pledge made by newly-installed President Benigno Aquino Jr. during the May election campaign.

However, COHRE remains concerned that demolitions and forced evictions continue to take place in Manila and Quezon City, and around 400,000 families in Metro Manila are threatened with forced eviction. This includes 60,000 families in the Manggahan Floodway, targeted for displacement, and in the Pasig River area, where the homes of 40,000 families are set to be demolished.

In Myanmar, hundreds of thousands have suffered various levels of housing and other human rights violations. Mega-projects reportedly being funded by foreign investment (gas pipelines, mega-dams and large-scale mining) often lead to large-scale displacement and widespread destruction of homes, properties and livelihoods. For example, a proposed five-dam cascade on the Salween River directly threatens the livelihoods of over 70,000 people.

Mounting incidents of military abuses, forced relocation, forced labour and land confiscation at the dam sites are being reported.

“The establishment of the AICHR last year raised hopes and guarded optimism for human rights in Southeast Asia, and we welcome the AICHR’s engagement with human rights movements in the region,” said Sammy Gamboa.

“However, almost a year has now passed, and efforts to make the AICHR effective and truly work for the promotion and protection of human rights in the region still have a long way to go.”

COHRE called on the AICHR to effectively address the region-wide problem of housing rights violations, including forced evictions, that continue to be one of the intractable human rights issues in the region.

It also urged ASEAN member-states to ratify the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), including its Optional Protocol.

COHRE reminded ASEAN governments in the Philippines, Cambodia and Indonesia that they must comply with their treaty obligations under the ICESCR , including the implementation of recommendations and concluding observations, particularly on the right to adequate housing and against forced evictions.

It furtherd said that the AICHR needed to establish a protection mandate and subsequent mechanism for the effective redress of human rights violations, including violations of housing and other human rights.

The AICHR must develop and elaborate additional protocols related to the right to adequate housing, in keeping with existing international human rights standards, COHRE said

Last, it called on the AICHR to particularly address the rights and needs of women, children and migrant workers in the region, who are often disproportionately impacted by housing rights violations, including forced evictions. –The Jakarta Post, Jakarta