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Welcoming a half-baked ASEAN rights body

Sumber: thejakartapost.com | Tgl terbit: Senin, 21 Desember 2009

Its birth was cheered and jeered. As an infantile institution, the first-ever ASEAN human rights body launched in 2009 was not just weak and toothless, it was also almost universally decried as defective.

But Indonesia, seeing the glass as half-full, believed it was a breakthrough the 42-year-old regional grouping — notorious for its poor human rights records – could achieve at the moment.

Vowing to safeguard the ASEAN charter, Jakarta almost derailed the establishment of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) when the 10 member states were deliberating the commission’s terms of reference (ToR), a few months before it was inaugurated during the grouping’s 15th summit in Bangkok in October.

Jakarta at the time wanted a rights body with teeth, but the other nine nations appeared to be either reluctant to have a human rights watchdog in their own backyard, or skeptical that the grouping, once dubbed a “dictators club”, was ready to have a UN- or EU-style rights body.

The ToR, critics say, lacks the power to punish human rights abusers and does not even include a peer review mechanism in which each member state is required to submit a report on its respective human rights situation.

Hence, the ASEAN rights body will do more promotion than protection, or, to put it another way, more talk than action.

But despite its shortcomings, Indonesia approved the ToR after it secured a commitment from its fellow ASEAN nations that it would be reviewed every five years.

“It was now or never” was the main reason behind the ASEAN leaders’ decision to approve a rights body with a watered-down mandate.

Hopes remain high, though, for the new rights body, as most Southeast Asians continue to live under repressive governments, draconian laws and controlled media.

Even more democratic countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines are still grappling with the issues of separatism, terrorism and religious bigotry, often leading to human rights abuses.

The question is, how much should Southeast Asians expect from a “watchdog” that neither bites nor barks? Will the rights body, with all its handicaps, make an impact big enough to be felt by most Southeast Asians?

Todung Mulya Lubis from the NGO Imparsial, and Usman Hamid from the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), say the only way to make the toothless commission effective is by placing the right people behind its wheel; people who are committed to upholding human rights.

Alas, looking at the composition of the 10 AICHR commissioners, the prospect seems dismal.
Indonesia and Thailand are the only countries conducting an open selection process to appoint their commissioners. Indonesia’s Rafendi Djamin of the Human Rights Watch Group is a prominent rights activist with global networking, while Thailand’s Sirprapha Petharamesree was a lecturer on human rights at Mahidol University.

The rest of the commissioners are unconvincing at best.

Myanmar chose its ambassador to the United Nations, Kyaw Tint Swe, a defender of the junta at the international body, to sit at the commission. Singapore appointed a former district judge, Richard Magnus, and Brunei a sharia judge, Abdul Hamid Baikal.

Malaysia appointed Mohammad Shafee Abdullah, a lawyer with connections to the ruling UMNO Party.

The Philippines, Cambodia and Laos decided to extend the job of their delegates at the High Level Panel who drafted the much-criticized ToR – Rosario Manalo, Om Yentieng and Bonkeut Sangsomsak.

Rafendi’s presence is thus seen as key to making the commission work and to paving the way for improvement in the future. He knows he doesn’t just represent Indonesia, but Asian-based civil society groups as well.

The burden seems too big to bear; the mission too hard to accomplish.

The possible partnership between human rights NGOs and ASEAN governments’ officials in promoting human rights – virtually unthinkable in the past – will give hope that the commission will not be a dead, useless body.

Although the commission doesn’t accept rights abuse complaints, investigate cases or prosecute rights violators, nor make reports of each country’s human rights situation, rights groups can help raise the public’s and governments’ attention to major human rights concerns in the region.

They can also raise the issue of migrant workers who are most prone to abuse, or the conflict between natives and governments or expansive corporations, he added.

The commissioners have not yet talked about any substantial issues after their first meeting in October, when they discussed only technical matters such as how many times they should meet in a year.

They are slated to meet again in Bangkok from Dec. 18 to 19 to discuss priority issues and draft a work plan, budget and communication modalities with human rights entities at the national, regional and global level.

The commission’s ToR is nowhere near perfect, but it provides an opportunity for rights groups to raise human rights awareness in the region and smooth the way for the creation of a full-fledged regional human rights mechanism that will include the establishment of a human rights tribunal.

It is perhaps unreasonable to be optimistic that the AICHR will bring a major change to Southeast Asia in the near future, but it is also unwise to let the regional rights body go astray due to our sheer cynicism.


The author is a staff writer at The Jakarta Post.



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