Bangkok. A year after its creation, a Southeast Asian human rights body has earned an unflattering label — that of being a window-dressing exercise to improve the image of a region that is home to governments notorious for suppressing political opponents.

The performance of the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights “in its first year has seen some positive developments, but overall it is disappointing and worrisome on several accounts,” according to a performance report prepared by civil society organizations to mark AICHR’s first anniversary.

“There seems to be resistance by several representatives in the commission to have clear working modalities to be outlined for the commission to conduct its work more efficiently and effectively,” added the report, titled Hiding Behind Its Limits and released by Solidarity for Asian People’s Advocacy, an umbrella group of regional civil society groups.

“[It has failed] to meet with relevant stakeholders, including civil society; and [it has refused] to officially receive cases of human rights violations,” the report said.

AICHR’s mission to prioritize “human rights promotion over the urgent need to provide protection mechanisms” has exposed the flaws in the commission’s “founding architecture,” said Atnike Novo Sigiro of Forum-Asia, a Bangkok-based regional rights watchdog. “When examining the ‘work’ that AICHR performed [in its first year], one cannot help but wonder: what has AICHR done and for whom?”

This marks an about-turn from the mood last year, when civil society organizations hailed the AICHR as a welcome step forward and many were hopeful it would deliver, said Phil Robertson, deputy director at the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. “There was hope for some flexibility that AICHR would use … to show what relevant human rights work it could do.”

Some of the criticism is valid, conceded Rafendi Djamin, the Indonesian commissioner on the 10-member AICHR. “I do understand the disappointment of CSOs … since they have been trying to approach AICHR since its inauguration,” he said. “[Yet] to judge AICHR as a window-dressing exercise … is a bit premature.”

AICHR’s predicament is rooted in the politics of the region, where of Asean’s 10 members only Indonesia and the Philippines have open democratic cultures advocating human rights.

In fact, Indonesia found itself out of step with its Asean neighbors when the final language of AICHR was being drafted. Jakarta wanted AICHR’s terms of reference to have a complaints mechanism and make it accessible to victims, Rafendi said. But “since the beginning of its establishment, the [terms of reference] did not arm AICHR with a complaints mechanism. It was a political compromise between Indonesia and the other nine member states.”

But rather than abandon the new rights commission, the region’s activists should continue to engage with it, Rafendi said. “AICHR definitely needs support from CSOs to strengthen its mandate in this region.” –Inter Press Service,