2012 Dec 04
December 4, 2012

Whither women’s rights in ASEAN?

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There have been two recent important moments to remember in relation to women’s rights in Southeast Asia: the adoption of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration on Nov. 18 and the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on Nov. 25. In the context of ASEAN, a fundamental issue to be borne in mind is the direction of women’s rights.

In Southeast Asia, progress in women’s rights has been quicker than other human rights, such as political and civil rights.

Women issues are maybe perceived to be “soft issues” and thus less likely to compromise the political stability of most member states. In fact, all member countries have already ratified or acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which could serve to help them comply with international human rights, especially women’s rights.

Nonetheless, taking a closer look at ASEAN experiences, the region is still facing uncertainty on the future of women’s rights.

First, most existing ASEAN women’s rights documents appear to have failed to address women’s issues. For example, three declarative documents born prior to the ASEAN Charter, namely the 1988 Declaration of the Advancement of Women, the 2004 Declaration against Trafficking in Persons, particularly Women and Children, and the 2004 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women have not overcome gender inequality problems due to their failure to articulate women’s rights in measurable plans, legislation, policies and programs in all areas and at all levels.

Four primary women’s issues in ASEAN, namely economic participation, migration and discriminatory laws, political participation and violence against women (Southeast Asia Women’s Caucus on ASEAN, 2012) cannot be tackled by merely a reliance on the above, inconclusive instruments.

Second, the ASEAN Charter (one might conceives it as “ASEAN constitution”) to which all member states adhere, emphazises the goal of fostering an institution to deal with human rights, but does not define descriptive ways how that objective can be achieved. It gives no mention to particular women’s rights.

Third, the majority of regional instruments are not meant to be legally binding. The Joint Statement and Commitment to Implement Gender Mainstreaming in 2008, for instance, may be considered progress for it recognizes the importance of the CEDAW as a guiding international framework. Yet, it is not legally binding, meaning that it is highly unlikely to tackle various women’s issues in the region.

Fourth, a necessary human rights body mandated by the ASEAN Charter has not reached international human rights benchmarks.

The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), established in 2009, has come under criticism as its terms of reference (TOR) do not address any single provision on women’s rights.

International Women’s Rights Action Watch (IWRAW) Asia Pacific, for instance, criticized that women’s rights protection in the region not only failed to address the primary issues of women, but also showed failure of the organization to encourage its member states to comply with provisions under the CEDAW (IWRAW, 2008).

In 2010, progress could be seen when the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) was fostered, for it created the opportunity for public participation in the processes of women’s rights protection.

Nevertheless, similar to the AICHR, this commission aims to be an intergovernmental consultative body, so that poses concerns about the independence of its commissioners. Moreover, its TOR appear to put aside women migrant workers issues in the region, whereas they are vulnerable to violence and discrimination in the workplace.

The recent birth of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration has added to the region’s history of women’s rights. In fact, inherent weaknesses appear to exist in the declaration. A number of human rights limitations and the declaration’s non-legally binding nature are among its loopholes, and it carries little weight in the context of improving human rights in the future.

The full observance of the rights of women has a long way to go if there is no strong political will and determination to reform the structural and functional capacities of existing bodies dealing with women’s issues.

ASEAN leaders have only focused on how to strengthen cooperation but have not yet extended it to form an effective framework that can reinforce obligations as set out in numerous regional agreements. More importantly, such reinforcement mechanisms will be a key element for ASEAN member states’ obedience to the rules of the CEDAW.

Since the inception of ASEAN, member countries have maintained norms, such as non-interference, for the purposes of engaging themselves to manage intergovernmental relations. The principle has effectively promoted peace and stability in the region, but has often brought about a low standard of value recognized internationally.

It has hampered each member country in advocating and making judgments on others on issues of human rights. This fact has actually compromised the group’s external reputation and its collective engagement with other communities across the globe.

Therefore, ASEAN needs a binding treaty, encompassing a list of comprehensive women’s rights, related enforcement subsystems and a mandated independent body dealing with women. Member states should either reform existing ASEAN human rights bodies or establish another independent body that can exercise a fundamental monitoring role and an investigative function for women’s rights cases.

Such a body should be enabled to decide whether a state has committed violations against women or has failed to comply with women’s rights provisions under international human rights standards.

But do member states of ASEAN have such strong political will? The past shows otherwise, while the future remains uncertain. –Mahmudin Nur Al-Gozaly, Melbourne, Jakarta Post

The writer is a diplomat at the Foreign Ministry. The opinions expressed are his own.