Asean has now established various mechanisms to promote and protect human rights in the region.
In particular, the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), the Asean Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) and the Asean Committee on the Implementation of the Asean Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers (ACWC). Yet, a pivotal area for human rights promotion and protection lies at the national level.
There are a variety of checks and balances which come into play on this front, including effective and accessible judiciary, people’s participation, active civil society, parliamentary democracies, and effective national human rights institutions.
Interestingly, four Asean countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines) now have national human rights commissions which are accepted internationally as independent, and they act as promoters and protectors of human rights in the most direct sense. Myanmar recently set up its national human right commission, but this is not yet internationally accepted as independent.
Importantly, the four national human rights commissions mentioned all receive complaints from victims; monitor human rights implementation; investigate situations; carry out field visits to fact-find; and offer remedies through recommendations. Thailand’s national commission also has the power to take cases to court on behalf of the victims. It is thus important to reinforce these national human rights institutions as the most accessible mechanisms in Asean, fulfilling a role most directly related to human rights protection in the most immediate sense. Some of them have tried to offer a liberal approach on the interpretation of religions and the protection of minorities (for example, the Indonesian and Malaysian commissions), even when faced with conservative strands of society.
In 2007, they issued a Declaration of Cooperation to open the door to joint programmes.
On an encouraging note, they have now set up a network which opens the door to other Southeast Asian countries, such as Timor Leste, which are not yet part of the Asean.
This is the Southeast Asia National Human Rights Institutions Forum (SEANF).
The four commissions have also agreed on a common plan of action targeted at the following: anti-terrorism, economic, social and cultural rights, human rights education, and human trafficking/migrant workers.
One of the longstanding features of the Asean is that it is basically an inter-governmental, inter-state organisation. Despite the many references to people’s participation in its various instruments, there is still no people’s organ in the structure of Asean itself. There is no Asean parliament or assembly. This invites reflection on how to popularise Asean in the more people-centred sense both structurally and substantively. From the angle of parliamentarians drawn from the national level in Asean and their relations with the European Parliament, it is to be noted that there is a forum where they now meet periodically , although in a broader framework than the Asean: the Asia-Europe Parliamentary Partnership Meetings (Asep). In 2010 there was forum in Brussels and it tackled primarily the issue of economic and financial crisis. This will be followed by a meeting in Vientiane in 2012.
More directly on the Asean parliamentarians, a useful entry point is possibly to interlink more closely with a network of parliamentarians which already exists, even though not yet part of the formal Asean structure. The Asean Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (Aipa) now has representation from parliamentarians from all 10 Asean countries, and it may, one day, sow the seeds and open the door to the much needed presence of a regional parliament in the Asean structure. It has had links with the European Parliament since the 1970s. The European Parliament also enjoys observer status at the Aipa and was represented at its most recent General Assembly in Phnom Penh in September 2011. The links have offered opportunities, particularly with the support of European parliamentarians, for highlighting the call for democracy in Myanmar and other parts of the region lacking in democracy (particularly in the now democratic Indonesia and Timor Leste).
The Aipa has various committees which indirectly cover human rights issues. For instance, its Committee on Social Matters addressed these issues at the 2011 General Assembly: implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs); role of parliamentarians on the protection and promotion of the rights of migrant workers in the Asean; and action against illicit drugs. The Aipa has also established the Meeting of Women Parliamentarians of Aipa (Waipa) which provides an avenue to raise gender sensibility. Could the Aipa be invited to take up the issue of a possible Asean Parliament and to set up a specific committee on human rights or an ombudsman (potentially to receive human rights communications ) in its structure to complement the other initiatives?
On a forward-looking note, the dynamic which could be propelled as the next crucial step for Asean is to take the quantum leap to set up formally in the Asean structure a regional Parliament or Assembly, and the Aipa could be a platform for this.
This could be complemented by the eventual setting up of an Asean court (whether of a general nature or with a specific human rights mandate) with the power to order redress and reparation where national remedies are lacking. This would help to respond to the need for checks and balances at the Asean level in regard to human rights protection and be a possible voice of the peoples of the region in this regard.
Various orientations invite cooperation and assistance from within the Asean region and beyond, to broaden the mechanisms and stakeholders on human rights protection in the region, including the following:
– Help to strengthen the work of the AICHR on the implementation of its Work Plan, such as on corporate social responsibility and migration issues, targeting the future five-year review of the AICHR to fortify its protection role;
– Support the activities of the ACWC under its Work Plan, especially to address violence against women and children;
– Enhance the work of the ACMW to underline the rights of migrant workers in the Asean and ensure that the standards adopted comply with international human rights standards;
– Engage with the Asean Summits of heads of government and various ministerial meetings to mainstream human rights into their deliberations and actions;
– Support the role of national human rights institutions, such as national human rights commissions, and their regional network to respond to the protection needs of the peoples of the region;
– Assist civil society and various informal channels, including through educational institutions, in the region to reinforce their role in human rights promotion and protection;
– Provide space for a stronger UN presence, including assistance for UN-related programming as part of direct aid in the region to overcome any protection gaps;
– Help to propel the trajectory towards a regional court in the Asean which can offer binding adjudication and effective remedies, by supporting networking between key judicial institutions and personnel in the Asean and possibly a future Asean Human Right Convention;
– Access people directly and effectively so as to support local activities, mechanisms and processes for human rights protection, including through more networking between human rights defenders, inspired by a more people-oriented Asean.
– Support the integration of human rights protection into the work of the Aipa and advocate the setting up of an Asean parliament as part of the checks and balances to protect human rights in the region, complemented by a human rights committee or ombudsman in the structure.
Vitit Muntarbhorn is a Professor of Law at Chulalongkorn University. He has helped the UN in a variety of positions, including as expert, consultant and Special Rapporteur. All views expressed in the article are personal. This article is based on a new study by Prof Vitit commissioned by the European Parliament, titled: Development of the Asean Human Rights Mechanism, now available on the internet:
–Bangkok Post, http://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/313308/glimmers-of-hope-for-human-rights-gains
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