In the year since the establishment of the Asean Intergovernmental Commission for Human Rights (AICHR), the overall human rights situation in the region has actually deteriorated. Worse still, nobody talks about it anymore because the conventional wisdom is that Asean now has a human rights body. According to normal procedure, it should be AICHR members who raise issues of human rights conditions or violations in Asean or within individual member countries.

Truth be told, Asean took more than a decade to create this body. And apparently it will take another decade to effectively implement the human rights mechanism. That, at least, seems to be the destiny of the AICHR.

At the moment, the AICHR is spending most of the time talking about rules of procedure — and other indirect ways to eradicate all possible independent inquiry into human rights violations in Asean.

Like it or not, politics in Asean, whether focused on human rights or not, revolve around procedural matters. Member countries seeking to kill ideas or projects they do not support, use rules of procedure to do so. No surprise then that Asean-based civil society groups have concluded that the AICHR shows Asean’s commitment to human rights as merely window dressing. That conclusion is not far from the truth.

It is imperative that Asean-based non-governmental organisations also be realistic in working on protecting human rights in Asean. Simple attacks and the demeaning of the AICHR will certainly not improve human rights in Asean. At some point, the NGOs need to work together with the human rights body, no matter how difficult or painful they find the process.

Civil groups must first equip themselves with knowledge of Asean and its current procedures. The only effective way to deal with Asean is to understand the grouping’s limitations.

For the time being, the AICHR is too dominated by hardline attitudes taken by both new and old members. Some of these have played pivotal roles in diluting overall human right values in Asean. They are continuing in this mission as AICHR members. Most Asean members have adopted a policy of ignoring human rights issues but playing along with procedures, with the intention of delaying the whole process.

Asean-based civil society groups must work harder when it comes to monitoring and reporting human rights conditions in the region. At the moment, their work is too narrowly focused and lacks public appeal.

International human rights organisations in Asean, especially in Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, have done a much better job in detailing cases of atrocities and other violations. Their examinations and recommendations have drawn the attention of the relevant governments to human rights abuses.

With Indonesia taking up its role as the new Asean Chair, there is fresh hope that more can be done to help improve the working of the AICHR. The Chair needs to work with Thailand and the Philippines, which have liberal views on human rights.

Two important documents expected to be signed next year are the Declaration of Asean Human Rights, and an instrument to protect migrant workers’ rights.

Of course, it will take time, and members will try to block or dilute the substance of the Asean human rights’ commitment. But the only way to transform the Asean community into a global community is through the promotion of human rights. –Asia News Network, The Nation