All Asean countries have done universal periodic review (UPR) with flying color during the first four-year cycle (2008-2011). They detailed human rights situation and answered tough questions raised by the members of UN Human Rights Council without any sense of trepidation.

Obviously, the question now is why on earth ASEAN cannot duplicate the same good practice among themselves. Does ASEAN not deserve to hear the truth on rights issues? One easily assumes that being in the same family, it will be easier to talk this issue over. Sadly that is not the case. A few ASEAN members still think it remains intrusive to listen to their own voice and observations even inside their comfort zone.

After the establishment of ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission for Human Rights (AICHR) in 2009 under the Thai chair, ASEAN has moved enthusiastically in promoting human right issues because it was really easy to do that. Some ASEAN diplomats used to tease that just saying “I love you” is considered a promotion of human right within the ASEAN context. On the protection front, however, literally the record was nil. For the past four years, AICHR has completely ignored violation of human rights in member countries. During the first year of AICHR, attempts were made by individual AICHR member to take up right violations such as the Maguindanao massacre. But it was a non-starter. Disappearance of Lao activist, Sombath Somphone, in December last year was another case in point showing the AICHR’s lack of moral courage. After all, it came after the announcement of ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights one month before his kidnapping.

To be fair due to growing pressure from the civil society groups, the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia have tried to push forward human right agenda in ASEAN through their respective AICHR members and their national human right commissions. In that sense, Myanmar, which is confronting a myriad of human right violations and condemnations, can be considered as a positive development due to the establishment of human right commission in at the end of 2011, which has more than 1000 cases of rights violations filed awaiting investigation.

Last Thursday, Indonesia again surprised the ASEAN colleagues by convening a dialogue with the AICHR and followed by a meeting at the ASEAN Secretariat. Indeed, Indonesia is leading by doing to show what a member can do to enhance effort to promote and protect human rights in a tangible way inside the country and Asean. At the meeting, Indonesia informed the AICHRCHR members about its human rights condition, similar to the one the country did during the UPR in 2010. The purpose is to exchange information and learned about human rights condition from other AICHR members. In fact, Jakarta is actually implement the article 4.10 of terms of reference of AICHR which says: as a member country it can obtain information pertaining to promotion and protection of human rights.

By informally reporting to the AICR, Indonesia has taken a leap of faith hoping other members would do the same in the future. Foreign Minister Marty Nategawa is smart and with his experience at the United Nation, he knows how to build on existing ASEAN achievements or existing mechanism. Just recently, he proposed the new Indo-Pacific Wide Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. Although ASEAN has yet to respond officially to the plan, it was clear that the idea was an extrapolation of the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation.

Back in 2003, Indonesia unleashed its diplomatic tour de force with proposals of drafting the ASEAN Charter, political security community and Bali Concord III that essentially shaped the current body politics of Asean. In the next decade in 2022, Jakarta hopes that ASEAN will be able to form a common platform on most of global issues confronting the grouping. Of late, Indonesia feels it has outgrown ASEAN and wants to move on. Obviously, the country’s leaders also realize that without ASEAN as a partner, Indonesia’s international profile would not be as credible. This is one attribute why the grouping’s largest member is hyper active diplomatically.

In comparison, Thailand with a liberal human right record could have come up with a similar initiative before Indonesia or at the every least join hands with Indonesia to push for a common aim. For a record, Thailand’s report on human rights to the UN in 2011 was comprehensive and well written based on 14 rounds of consultations with all stakeholders—the highest number of engagements in Asean. Unfortunately in the past two years, Thailand’s profile and representation in ASEAN at the foreign ministerial level in all areas, not to mention the human rights, has been found wanting. So, it impacts on the country’s diplomatic performance negatively. However, at the senior official level within the country, Thai human rights representatives met with Permanent Secretary Sihasak Phuengkhetkeow for regular consultations. The selection of AICHR member for Thailand was also recruited and done in a professional way.

Irony as it may seem, under the Yingluck government, Thailand has been touted as a beacon of democracy and respect of human rights through expensive public relations campaign overseas. But nothing has really come up out it. In fact, some of the current Cabinet members are considered very rogue and thuggish without due regard for human dignity and integrity.

It is remained to be seen whether Indonesia’s action would have a contagion effect on conservative members of Asean. Doubtless, Thailand and the Philippines certainly will back Indonesia’s dialogue with the AICHR. In the near future, if all members are more willing to follow suit, Asean’s status in the human right community would be uplift. That also means for the first time ASEAN has concretely adopted the UPR framework as part of its terms of reference. Against this background, it would serve as a conduit for ASEAN to take up a bolder step in other UN-related areas such as in the peace-keeping operation, which all ASEAN members have been engaging separately on their own behalf for a long time. Previous attempt in 2009 led by Bangkok and Jakarta to fly an ASEAN flag were on peace-keeping operation were repeatedly rejected as some members feared of losing sovereignty and sharing financial burden. –Kavi Chongkittavorn,