Thailand is hosting a meeting of the Asean Intergovernmental Commission of Human Rights until Thursday to negotiate the draft of the regional bloc’s Human Rights Declaration.

Since the commission started the drafting process last year, it has been criticised widely by the public, and especially by civil groups for its secrecy regarding the draft’s content.

The Bangkok meeting will be the first time that the AICHR will discuss the draft with sectoral bodies within the Asean mechanism. These include the sectoral bodies on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children and on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers. Significant progress could lead to possible consultation with civil society, which would demonstrate the legitimacy of the commission. These are major, positive developments on human rights, which is an area in which Thailand has constantly played a leading role.

For Thai and other Asean people, this meeting will continue the process of developing the declaration, which will enhance their awareness and understanding of the fundamental rights that the declaration will enunciate and ultimately seek to protect. Although the AICHR expects this declaration not to be legally binding and it will not contain a mechanism to punish those who violate human rights, it is at least a standard rights document that will be shared broadly amongst Asean people. This is an important milestone in Asean’s progress toward creating a people-centred community.

The declaration will also be important because it will demonstrate the commitment of Asean governments to the promotion and protection of human rights. It will proclaim that Asean nations, some of which have experienced tragic events such as genocide, oppression and other rights violations, are now ready to cooperate and try to achieve tangible and lasting human rights protection.

The declaration is intended to be a political document that reflects Asean’s aspirations for and commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights. It should represent a balance of rights and duties, incorporate universal values, while taking into account regional particularities as well as the national laws and regulations of each Asean member.

The declaration will consist of Civil and Political Rights, Economic Rights, Social and Cultural Rights, Rights and Duties, Right to Development, and Cooperation in the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. To produce a successful declaration in accordance with the AICHR’s goals, the engagement and participation of all stakeholders, including public and private civil society organisations as well as individual citizens, is key. Consultation with all stakeholders will promote understanding of the issues on human rights, while it could also encourage people to recognise their own rights and duties. However, human rights remain a sensitive issue in many countries. Accordingly, some countries may not be ready to engage fully with public and civil society.

Sriprapha Petcharamesree, Thailand’s representative to the AICHR, has encouraged the commission to disclose information throughout the drafting process. She believes that transparency, open dialogue and freely available information will create a sense of participation by the public. Ms Sriprapha has also conducted activities to raise awareness about human rights. She has held consultation sessions with government, the public sector and civil society in all regions of the country regarding the declaration.

In 2015, Asean will become a people-centred community where political, economic, social and cultural matters are inter-linked.

To build such a community, it is crucial to strengthen democracy, enhance good governance and the rule of law, and to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms. Asean leaders have adopted this common approach, which adheres to the purposes and principles of the Asean Charter adopted and signed by them during a summit in Singapore in 2007.

The declaration reflects the commitment of the leaders to strengthening democracy and promoting and protecting human rights in accordance with internationally accepted standards. The AICHR was established in 2009 while Thailand held the Asean chairmanship with a main purpose to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of the peoples of the grouping.

During the preliminary stage, the AICHR issued a work plan, the purpose of which was to develop strategies to enhance public awareness of human rights among Asean peoples. In later stages, it will develop specific strategies for the protection of human rights through possible instruments and mechanisms such as treaties and conventions.

During the summit in Phnom Penh last month, the AICHR had an interface dialogue with the Asean foreign ministers on the progress of the draft declaration. The ministers expressed their appreciation for the work of the AICHR and encouraged the commission to work closely with human rights-related bodies in the region in order to develop a meaningful human rights declaration document for the Asean Community and its people.

Asean foreign ministers expect the commission to finalise this declaration and submit it to leaders for endorsement at a summit in November this year. –