(Commentary) – Like the making of the Asean Charter prior to its enactment at the end of 2008, the drafting process for the proposed Asean Declaration on Human Rights (ADHR) was an arduous one.

The five-page draft was completed by the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) last week in Myanmar after long negotiated sessions over controversial phrases and the future implications of the region’s first declaration on human rights.

At this juncture it is an imperfect document, which will be vetted by the Asean foreign ministers next month. The Asean chair, Cambodia, wants a final draft to be approved at the 21st Asean Summit in November. Time is running out to consider input from civil society organizations (CSOs), which will meet to give their views to AICHR on Friday and Saturday in Kuala Lumpur.

The Asean-based CSOs have been hard at work to contribute to the drafting process from the very beginning, but their efforts have achieved very little. Since 2005, they have gained insights in engaging in the Asean way of doing things, or rather drafting documents.

They realized that they have to start early, reading every Asean document, understanding its procedures and hidden meanings, and increasing consultations at national and regional levels among themselves. Then, they would push forward common positions together at the regional level through their AICHR representatives.

During the Asean Charter drafting back in 2007, the CSOs strongly condemned the process, which did not consider their input and lacked transparency.

That was understandable as the engagement between the representatives of Asean and civil society groups was still nascent – there was no common ground or comfort level. The charter drafters even ignored specific progressive recommendations put forward by the Group of Eminent Persons. Truth be told, at that time the CSOs were still unorganized, and lacked coordination and understanding on the best ways to engage Asean officials or to use the established rules and procedures. Their mutual suspicion was also very high, as if they were out to annihilate each other.

In retrospect, the first interface between the Asean leaders and selected representatives of civil society groups in Kuala Lumpur in 2005 was an unprecedented small opening up of the tightly knit top-down Asean process.

Civil society’s role

Lest we forget, Asean took over three decades to recognize that the burgeoning CSOs in the region have a role in providing inputs in the decision-making and community-building process. Back then it generated lots of excitement and goodwill among the civil and grassroots groups that Asean has gradually moved towards a much-needed bottom-up process.

They have worked together most closely and identified common agendas affecting the Asean citizens and their environments.

However, the current ADHR draft demonstrates the hurdles that Asean and CSOs still have to overcome together.

Since its inception, at the official level, Asean has respected consensus and non-interference principles as sacrosanct, without any question. Whenever the member countries are confronted with this rationale, the next effort automatically is to find a compromise, watering down the original substance and objective. Historically, Asean often makes decisions based on the lowest common denominators ensuring that all members are part of common decisions and agreements. Interestingly, these base lines are not static; rather, they evolve over time.

To be more specific, since 1998 they have moved up a few small notches. The Asean members are more open now than before in tackling sensitive issues, i.e., internal conflict, transnational problems and human rights abuses. Enhanced interaction among the leaders has since then become an Asean norm.

With the Asean Charter, the Asean leaders now have the flexibility to make a stand or a decision on certain issues. Indonesia’s democratization has also directly influenced the overall body politic in the grouping. Its high regional and international profile helped shepherd Asean to come up with a legally binding charter and security blueprint, which formed part and parcel of the Asean Community.

In the case of Myanmar, the jury is still out on whether the drastic turnaround there after March 2011, which intensified greatly after the April by-election, would have a similar impact on Asean as in Indonesia’s experience. Early signs indicate that if the reform process continues with regional and international support, Myanmar could be another catalyst to push Asean forward to the next level after years of condemnation as an abattoir akin to recalcitrant Indonesia under Suharto. Myanmar today has softened its hard-line views and approaches to human rights and democracy.

As the sixth and latest round of the AICHR meeting in Ranoon indicated, Myanmar no longer belongs to the so-called “Vietnam-Cambodia-Laos room.” During the Asean Charter’s drafting process, Myanmar used to be part of this informal coalition as they often gathered in a room to exchange views when they confronted delicate issues or before blocking any initiative by more progressive Asean members.

The conservative charter as well as AICHR’s limited mandate – focusing on promoting rather than protecting human rights – was their enduring legacy. However, this is a possibility that could change when Myanmar chairs Asean in 2014 as the AICHR terms of reference are also up for review after five years. Indeed, Myanmar is tipping the scale between the conservative and progressive members in Asean. Even Vietnam, which has been showing disdain over any human rights activity at home, has applied to become a member of the UN Human Rights Council.

Asean was flabbergasted when Myanmar established its national human rights commission last November, joining Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia. While the state-run national human rights mechanism has not been recognized by its Asean and international peers, it was nonetheless a welcome move, which the other half of Asean has been reluctant to follow. In the past six months, more than one thousand cases of human-rights abuses were filed with the commission in Naypyitawaw pressuring the concerned authorities to respond and prove their mettle. To increase professionalism, representatives of national human rights commissions in Asean have exchanged visits and shared experiences with their counterparts in Myanmar.

In the case of Myanmar, changes came from the top leaders as the influence of CSOs is still limited or non-existent. The CSOs in Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia are spearheading efforts for a more holistic ADHR draft. In Thailand, kudos must go to Dr. Sriphapa Petcharameesri, an AICHR member, and her team for initiating national consultations earlier on with local Thai civil groups throughout the country. Other Asean members including the Philippines and Indonesia have now followed suit with similar arrangements to garner the CSOs’ contributions.

The scheduled formal regional consultation between the AICHR members and the CSO representatives in Kuala Lumpur next week marks a new milestone. Regardless of the outcome, it will serve as a template for future engagements similar to the interface between the Asean leaders and CSOs.

In the meantime, the CSO representatives must convince the AICHR members to include their input with sound arguments. Certainly, it is too far-fetched to expect the AICHR to change the draft declaration or incorporate preferred CSO phrases or objectives. Most of the language used in the draft was taken from human rights related documents of UN and international conventions anyway, without compromising on their stated standards and norms. New protections on the illegal-organ trade, right to development and right to peace have been included.

Being Asean, all proposed rights protections could only be carried out in accordance with national and regional particularities and national laws. This of course can provide room for abuse by undemocratic members.

However, the CSO common stand and solidarity are essential in sending a strong signal to the AICHR members and appealing to their conscience to ensure that the resulting outcome will be a lively document. It will be a testament to their good – or ill – intentions for future generations in Asean, either to inspire or to be condemned. –Kavi Chongkittavorn, http://www.mizzima.com/edop/commentary/7345-asean-human-rights-civil-groups-must-work-together.html