Lawyers in Southeast Asia are being urged to organise and share information on how to better protect human rights activists.

A regional workshop in Bangkok has highlighted issues like enforced disappearances, legal support for families of the disappeared and peaceful assembly and association.

High on the agenda is also protecting rights activists, within the ASEAN regional human rights system.

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speaker: Emmerlyne Gil, international legal advisor, International Commission of Jurists, Bangkok

GIL: It’s a gathering of lawyers from all over the Southeast Asian region and these lawyers are those who have experience litigating for human rights defenders.

This conference is aimed to allow them to share experiences with each other and also strategies on how they overcame obstacles that they encountered in defending human rights defenders – To think about how they could play a role in developing an effective regional human rights mechanism that would be useful to their cases at the national level.

LAM: And have recent events within the ASEAN region led the ICJ or the conference organisers to believe that now, more than ever, human rights defenders need protection?

GIL: Definitely we see that there has been a lot of cases of attacks against human rights defenders in countries all over Southeast Asia. We are concentrating on the issues of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association. These are the two main rights that have been restricted. We can see restrictions on freedom of expression in Vietnam, Laos, Philippines even and Thailand. And they’re restrictions of freedom of association and assembly. We see them a lot in countries like Singapore and Malaysia.

LAM: What role is there for legal aid for instance, in countries where human rights defenders are being targeted or indeed threatened by local authorities?

GIL: There’s a big role for legal aid in these countries. More often than not, when human rights defenders are attacked, they would not know their legal recourse or where to go after they have been subjected to such an attack or threat. We see this in a lot of cases. Like, for instance, in the case of Sombath Somphone in Laos, there was no idea at all from the side of the family of Sombath on how to move forward to bring the case to a resolution.

LAM: What does the ICJ feel about the way ASEAN has approached the case, because it’s over 18 months, has the case gone cold?

GIL: The ICJ has tried to encourage the human rights body within ASEAN, which is ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission of Human Rights or the AICHR.

We have tried to encourage the AICHR to take up the case, effectively say something or address this case. There is a particular provision in their mandate, which allows them to discuss human rights issues that are common in the region and develop common approaches and positions on these issues. We learn later on, that AICHR, or many members of the AICHR did want to take up the case of enforced disappearances, and particularly, the case of Sombath Somphone.

However the lone dissenter to this proposal is the country of Laos. Laos evoked the principle of non-interference or non-intervention, this principle is very much embedded in the ASEAN charter. So the government of Laos considers any discussion on enforced disappearances or the case of Sombath within the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights, an interference in its internal affairs.

Laos is currently running for membership within the UN Human Rights Council – to us, it’s really incongruous that they are seeking a membership but would prevent other member states of the ASEAN to discuss the human rights situation in its own country.

Really, the issue of human rights, including protection of human rights is not a matter of the internal affairs of the state, but the international community has an interest, including a legal interest in this realisation and protection.

LAM: Is there a role here for the more mature members of ASEAN, i.e. the original members, such as Singapore, such as Indonesia, possibly even Thailand, to exert their influence of Laos regarding the case of Sombath Somphone, to call for a bit more transparency and a bit more action?

GIL: Yes Thailand did play a big role in pushing for a discussion on the Sombath case within the AICHR. In fact the commissioners from Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia were the ones who proposed a discussion on this case and enforced disappearances in general. Which is quite ironic because these are the countries that experience some cases as compared to other countries in ASEAN. Singapore also has a big role to play because for the longest time, Singapore has been close allies with Laos, with the government of Laos, and Singapore has been heavily investing in Laos, in terms of trade.