ASEAN's human rights body needs more independence from governments in
order to be an effective organisation that can improve the welfare of
its citizens, said regional activists, who criticised governments for
lacking the political will to ensure universal freedoms and basic rights
for their people.
Yuyun Wahyuningrum, a senior advisor on ASEAN
and human rights at Human Rights Working Group Indonesia's NGO
coalition for international human rights advocacy said ASEAN always
subscribes to the "lowest common denominator" when it comes to forging
an agreement on fundamental rights such as freedom of speech or
"ASEAN always brings cultural relativism to the issue
of human rights because at some point some countries in ASEAN do not
necessarily fit with what the West defines as universal human rights,"
she told The Brunei Times.
"The universality of human rights continue to be the challenge for ASEAN."
November, ASEAN countries endorsed a controversial human rights
declaration, hailing it as a landmark accord to help protect some 600
million people. But critics said it had left too many loopholes for
ASEAN, which groups a diverse range of political systems ranging from
authoritarian regimes to democracies.
The bloc's human rights
body the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR)
has also been dismissed as "toothless', lacking the authority to
investigate cases or prosecute human rights offenders.
Nova Sigiro, ASEAN Advocacy Programme Manager at the Asian Forum for
Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), said at some point the
commission will have to be given powers to investigate human rights
"Why would we establish the AICHR if they cannot do
anything? I can understand that is a very sensitive issue for ASEAN
member states but other human rights bodies in Africa or Americas
usually have a mandate to investigate.
Not necessarily to establish a court but to have authority to investigate the matter is very common."
added that AICHR's terms of reference will be up for review in 2014 and
the body should be given more independence and a stronger mandate to
address issues such as conflict, refugees, and access to basic needs.
body has been notably silent on the humanitarian situation in Myanmar
and Sabah, with thousands of people displaced by conflict.
they have to go through the political process to take action or make
comments - it will take too long because they have to get approval or
permission from their respective governments," Atnike said.
course we cannot imagine such a radical mandate will exist very soon.
Hopefully with the criticisms given by civil society, governments will
hear some of the input and improve the mandate of the AICHR to protect
and not just promote human rights."
Yuyun agreed that AICHR needed a stronger mechanism to address human rights issues.
society organisations have submitted a lot of (human rights abuse)
cases. The fact that AICHR cannot react to that, cannot make an
investigation to an issue submitted to them makes it weak."
said even though some Southeast Asian countries do have political will
to improve human rights in the region, they are often hindered by
ASEAN's policies of consensus-based decision making and non-interference
in member states' internal affairs.
"The way I see AICHR is not
only has the body been weakened by design but there has been a lot of
fences put up. So that's very difficult. I think some of the
commissioners in AICHR have been very frustrated."
said it took ASEAN more than five years to draw up an agreement to
protect migrant workers a lengthy process that illustrates the
difficulty in getting member countries to commit, even to non-binding
The United States one of ASEAN's dialogue partners
recently said human rights in Southeast Asia was stagnating, pointing to
a lack of progress in many places and a worsening situation in some.
rights is one of the more difficult issues we raise with our partners,
but we must raise them," Acting Assistant Secretary for East Asian
Affairs Joseph Yun told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee.
the substance of declaration on human rights is not what we would wish,
I would say that Southeast Asians doing it is an important fact," Yun
insisted. "They have never agreed among all of them... whether they
ought to have common human rights goals."
Rafendi Djamin, a
veteran rights activist and Indonesia's representative to AICHR,
acknowledged that some clauses contained within the declaration could be
interpreted as a limitation of human rights and that the commission was
in the process of drafting "more binding" legal instruments.