On February 18 in Jakarta, the Asean Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) concluded its second deliberation over the long-anticipated Asean Human Rights Declaration (AHRD).

Since the drafting process began last July, a number of analysts and activists have criticised the lack of transparency in the process. Consultation with civil society organisations has been limited to national discussions in some countries. However, meaningful consultations require information, and the AICHR is encouraged to release an official draft as soon as possible. Speculation over an early draft leaked online will otherwise continue to be counter-productive for all parties concerned.

In a promising development, the AICHR committed to organising two regional consultations on the AHRD in the coming months to encourage inputs from civil society groups. “This is a people-oriented document. Of course we have to consult the people,” says Ambassador Rosario Manalo, Philippine representative to the AICHR.

Speaking in Prague last November to officials and civil society participants at the 11th Informal Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Seminar on Human Rights, Indonesian representative to the AICHR and then chairman, Rafendi Djamin, emphasised that: “This Declaration will be a major step for Asean and shall add value to the existing international and regional instruments on human rights.”

The largest regular dialogue on human rights between the two regions, the Prague seminar brought together national human rights commissioners, human rights ambassadors, representatives of justice and foreign affairs ministries, academics, activists and human rights defenders from 42 Asian and European countries. Among the participants were AICHR representatives from Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore.

The discussions did not focus exclusively on the AICHR but rather more broadly on regional mechanisms and their procedural effectiveness, national institutions and the interplay among mechanisms at different levels, including at the United Nations.

Discussions pooled participants’ expertise and familiarity with other regional bodies in Europe, the Americas and Africa, providing interesting observations for the relatively young AICHR as the only regional rights body in Asia.

First, the UDHR and international human rights treaties provide the minimum standards for human rights protection by national and regional bodies.

The AICHR’s terms of reference articulate the body’s aim to uphold international human rights standards as prescribed by the UDHR, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, and international human rights instruments “to which Asean member states are parties”. This need not mean the lowest common denominator. Moreover, Asean has moved forward on the rights of women and children, as well as of migrant workers, through specific initiatives.

Second, a regional human rights body could play an intermediary but potentially critical role between international and national systems. Where a regional court exists, sanctions can be made against states that violate their human rights obligations. Regional bodies may also help to prevent violations through the exercise of political or moral influence. Regional frameworks can serve as the impetus to improve domestic law by setting higher standards, in consonance with international frameworks.

There are many other examples where a regional body might serve an acute function within the mosaic of available mechanisms, tailoring solutions to the specific needs of the region. The AICHR’s terms of reference endow it with a mandate for both human rights promotion and protection; more could be done to fully explore the potential of the latter.

Third, human rights start at home. The AICHR could envision a mechanism that involves national human rights institutions (NHRIs) where they exist. Some NHRIs possess an indispensable protection mandate that complements the AICHR’s current focus on the promotion of human rights. Moreover, a number of NHRIs in the Asia-Pacific region have more experience than others – including European counterparts – in handling individual complaints and facilitating redress.

A regional-national link has promise in Asean, considering that half of the member states have NHRIs (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and – recently – Burma; Cambodia is in the process of setting one up).

“NHRIs do not only have a responsibility limited to national issues, because they are faced with cross-border as well as transnational issues,” says Professor Amara Pongsapich, chair of the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand.

The Prague Report suggests that “there is value in exploring the development of minimum international standards for regional human rights mechanisms”, as no such standards have been defined.

Despite any dissatisfaction over the AHRD drafting process and how the AICHR works, one must not lose sight of the immense opportunity that a human rights body in Asia – warts and all – represents. The process of creating the AICHR was not an easy one to begin with; yet it now exists, contrary to reasonable expectations a decade ago. Any possible evolution of the AICHR towards the realm of human rights protection will almost certainly be a slow process, apace with political developments in the region.

In time, we will more clearly assess the impact of the AICHR and AHRD on the region’s people, in the fulfillment of their fundamental rights and freedoms. –Sol Iglesias, http://www.nationmultimedia.com/opinion/Human-rights-in-Southeast-Asia-a-view-from-two-reg-30176559.html

Sol Iglesias is director for intellectual exchange at the Asia-Europe Foundation but writes here in a personal capacity.