One of the agenda items in the upcoming meeting of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) on May 6-10, 2013, in Jakarta will be the co mmission’s plan to draft a convention on the elimination of violence against women. This initiative is promoted by the Philippines and Thailand.

The AICHR believes that drafting a legally binding convention on women’s rights is a logical sequence from standard-setting after the adoption of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD) last year.

It is also one of the “trade-off” promises among AICHR representatives during the process of drafting the AHRD. Moreover, all ASEAN member states have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination and Violence against Women (CEDAW).

While it is true that a convention, as in a treaty, is the most effective tool to further develop the norms for human rights protection desired for the ASEAN Community, I strongly believe that this is not the right time for the AICHR to come up with one, based on the following reasons.

To begin with, it always makes sense to ask first whether a new standard on woman’s rights is needed in ASEAN. While it is true that all ASEAN standards relating to women are in the form of non-legally binding declarations, it does not mean that drafting a convention is the answer to the implementation, protection and normative gaps in ASEAN.

The AICHR should implement the AHRD and enforce it to strengthen the mandates in its terms of reference.

The AICHR should show us that the inclusion of clauses on the limitation of rights, a balance between rights and responsibilities and cultural particularism, can impact human rights situations at the national level where the ultimate differences are actually felt.

Second, the AICHR will dilute the rights of women, rather than ensuring their universality. In standard-setting discussions on human rights, we should expect the debate on religious, cultural and political consideration to be tabled.

The main challenge that women are facing now is to counter cultural justifications for human rights violations. The AICHR has no position on this other than defending member states’ interests, which eliminated LBGT and indigenous people and minorities as rights holders in the AHRD. It is highly probable that the AICHR will be consistent in its efforts to further marginalize the same or other groups through this convention.

Third, the convention standards will be lower than international standards on women. No matter what pledges the AICHR will make in drafting the convention, all of us know well what the end product of the process will be. Look no further than the AHRD.

Fourth, it is unlikely that the AICHR will add value to the existing conventions on women. Kaufman-Henever (in Coontz and Griebel, 2004) categorized conventions on women into three: protective, corrective and non-discriminatory approaches.

The protective conventions perceive women need protection from “paternal power” (state) as they step outside their societal boundaries. This can be found in the ILO Convention Concerning Night Work of Women Employed in Industry (1919, 1935) and the ILO Convention Concerning the Employment of Women on Underground Work in Mines of All Kinds (1946).

The corrective conventions address disparities between women and men, which perceive women not as victims but rather as seekers of genuine equality before the law, such as the UN series of agreements addressing prostitution (1904), Convention on Nationality and Married Women (1957), ILO Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices similar to Slavery (1956) are the examples of this
approach.

CEDAW (1979) is the pioneer of the non-discrimination conventions that aim at revising the legal systems that gender will no longer be a basis for treatment and benefits in society.

These conventions on women actually consolidate many gendered assumptions of the time. They include the role of women and men in society as well as the role of the state in sexual relations.

Therefore, it is not surprising if issues relating to marriage, right to family, sexual orientation and gender identity, abortion and sexual reproduction, and morality will be tackled first as some ASEAN member states have expressed interest in these issues.

Fifth, the AICHR lacks adequate expertise in international law and related fields on woman’s rights. The current composition of AICHR members is rather a “mixed bag”. As well as diplomats, civil society representatives, lawyers and people whose merits within the area of human rights are limited are some who are best known for their strong opposition to elements of universal human rights, as well as women’s rights.

Sixth, the AICHR has no political support in drafting a human rights convention. During the drafting process of the AHRD, the AICHR failed to get other ASEAN organs to back its initiative.

Until now, the AICHR still cannot solve the alignment issue with the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC).

Seventh, the AICHR lacks popular and victim support. Instead of giving voice to victims, the AICHR did not make efforts to reach out to victims. If victims do not have a sense of ownership of the AHRD now, the AICHR should take the blame.

Eighth, the AICHR has failed us in the previous AHRD drafting process. Information and negotiated texts were not shared with the public. Those who have been vocal on the work of the AICHR were barred from meetings.

Whereas when complex and competing players exist such as on the rights of women, the process becomes as essential as the product itself.

Finally, as societies evolve, new standards will continue to be needed. Obviously, ASEAN will require a human rights convention in the future.

What people need now is the AICHR’s presence when their rights are violated. Prioritizing people is the legacy we should take from the AICHR. –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