Despite the fact that the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) has existed for three years, human rights in ASEAN are going nowhere. The AICHR’s silence to a number of human rights violations in the region is scandalous. Unless there is a maneuver in between, the AICHR will continue its “legacy” of being irrelevant in the lives of the people in the region.

After its first meeting last month, with the new set of members, in Brunei Darussalam, the AICHR regrouped in Jakarta last week and will hold a five-day meeting session in May, also in Jakarta.

The establishment of the AICHR in the process of community building in ASEAN signifies a regional integration that is not merely about economic growth. Institutional building, norm setting and the formation of a community are crucial elements in the process to create a community, in which the AICHR should play a leading role on its
human rights aspect.

Institutional human rights covered by ASEAN include the strengthening of existing mechanisms and the introduction of new ones. Successful institutional building on human rights will result in a greater level of institutionalization beyond ASEAN to reach out to nations in the Southeast Asia region.

For the next three years, the AICHR should be more creative in articulating and developing a number of mechanisms that need to be implemented in its Terms of Reference (ToR) including: a mechanism for providing advisory services and technical assistance (Article 4.7), on consultation with its stakeholders (Article 4.9), to obtain information from member states (Article 4.10), public information and communication (Article 6.9) and on the review (Article 9.6).

Institution-building efforts should encourage dialogue and access by involving different stakeholders from the AICHR and spaces that allow the interaction to be further developed, such as developing a process of communication of complaints and their engagement with member states; appointing independent experts to assess country-based, cross-border and thematic-based human rights issues in ASEAN; establishing an inquiry procedure in relation to systematic or widespread human rights violations; and aligning with other organizations in terms of structure, institutionalization and standards on human rights.

In any community construction, norms are an indispensable component. Norm-setting processes could begin with declarations on issues and also commitments to deal with them. Norm-setting processes in the region could also be directed toward the creation of common and adopted practices, which could lead to administered statehood, managed intra-regional relations, the resolution of conflict and the overseeing of life in the region.

With the context of democracy deficits in the region, the AICHR has adopted the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration to add to the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women in the ASEAN Region, ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers.

It is more important for the AICHR in the next three years to begin assessing human rights that are acknowledged to be against the state’s obligations to respect, promote and protect, rather than come up with the initiative to draft legally binding conventions related to education and the violence against women. In the long term, of course, new demands would be made, either by governments or civil society to have legal instruments to keep up with developments in the region. But it is not a priority people think the AICHR should have now.

Both institutional building and norm setting should not become narrow-minded, or dictated by national interests, and exclusive undertaking, but rather the AICHR should uphold the importance of the universality, indivisibility, interdependence and interrelatedness of all human rights and the fundamental freedoms should be a matter of principle.

The guarantee of rights protection for individuals will expedite the formation of community building in ASEAN. Like other regional human rights systems in the world, the AICHR needs to set open sessions in its meetings, where the public can participate, hold dialogue with the body, observe and be part of the process. Furthermore, providing spaces for those affected by any actions of commission or omission by their government to participate in the AICHR is the key to pass the community building test.

The AICHR not only has the responsibility to contribute to the “we” feeling as an expression of togetherness and solidarity among ASEAN nationals, but also a feeling of security and protection from abuses of power.

Currently, the AICHR lacks identity as a human rights institution. Many states are using the body as a shield from international criticism of human rights violations.

The AICHR should be seen as an unconventional institution of human rights requiring unconventional approaches from unconventional players. Countries and governments that can play these roles are Indonesia and Thailand. We need these two countries to have unconventional breakthroughs.

In the next AICHR session slated for May 6-10, in Jakarta, Indonesia can report to the AICHR on the progress of the country’s efforts to promote and protect human rights along with the number of achievements and constraints.

The country under review can also promote recommendations to forge collaborations between the AICHR and the relevant country to achieve the common goal. Given the fact that Indonesia and all ASEAN member states have participated in the Universal Periodic Review in the last four years, reporting to the AICHR should not be an additional burden.

It is time for Indonesia to shift its posture from projecting human rights to really championing them in the regional and international arena. A firmer Indonesia is more pressing now than ever. Having a clear stance on human rights does not necessarily challenge the peace and stability of the common prosperity in the region. –Yuyun Wahyuningrum, Jakarta, Jakarta Post

The writer is senior advisor on ASEAN and human rights at the Human Rights Working Group (HRWG), a coalition of NGOs working on human rights in Indonesia, based in Jakarta.