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ASEAN rights body has potential

Analysis
Youk Chhang and John D Ciorciari

Last October, Southeast Asian leaders launched the new Association of Southeast Asian Nations Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. The commission has received mixed reactions in the human rights community. Some have lauded it as a step in the right direction, but many have dismissed it as toothless or damned it with faint praise. AICHR has both a duty and a viable opportunity to prove its critics wrong.

The commission is part of a broader effort to boost ASEAN’s relevance and credibility. ASEAN has traditionally emphasised noninterference and lagged behind other regional organisations in prioritising human rights. Its reluctance to focus on human rights has drawn Western ire and frustrated ASEAN’s attempt to plug further into the global economy. Friction inside the region has also increased due to changing norms, continuing ideological differences, and resentment of the collective price that ASEAN members must pay for individual members’ malfeasance.

In 2006, the Eminent Persons Group of senior Southeast Asian statesmen recommended setting up an ASEAN human rights mechanism to manage these challenges. A year later, leaders signed the ASEAN Charter, which directed officials to create a new body for the “promotion and protection of human rights” in the region. However, most Southeast Asian governments eyed that clause with suspicion. Many have spotty human rights records, and almost all remain acutely sensitive to perceived interference in their internal affairs. Few welcomed the notion of a regional body that would shine light on their own human rights practices.

Most Southeast Asians know too little about the basic rights to which they are entitled.

Consequently, the commission they created has very limited powers. In its current form, it looks more like an effort to deflect external criticism than take it to heart. It includes representatives from the 10 ASEAN countries, and they must reach decisions by consensus. That gives any recalcitrant member an effective veto on AICHR actions. The commission lacks the powers needed to protect human rights, since it cannot solicit or respond to complaints of specific abuses. It can issue reports, but only when all of its government-appointed representatives agree on the content. It has little independent budget or bureaucratic support. Critiques of the AICHR’s structure are therefore well-founded.
Still, ASEAN is not at a dead end. The creation of the new commission is a meaningful acknowledgement by ASEAN capitals of the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms. The best way forward for AICHR is to proceed on two parallel tracks. The first is for ASEAN and the more supportive commissioners and governments to explore ways of building a role for AICHR in protecting human rights.

One proposal is for sympathetic governments to invite AICHR to examine and report upon sensitive situations. That idea makes good sense, provided that the governments in question agree not to censor the resulting reports. Major change will not happen overnight, but incremental change is possible. Modest advances can set the stage for meaningful reform when the commission undergoes a planned review on its fifth birthday.

The commission has much greater immediate promise pursuing the other half of its mandate: promoting human rights. This means a variety of things, but ASEAN has rightly identified education as a key priority. Most Southeast Asians know too little about the rights to which they are entitled. Most also know little about ASEAN, an organisation that acts in their name but too often confines itself to intergovernmental affairs.

Human rights education – particularly by teaching youth as early as possible in their schooling – is a way to make ASEAN more relevant to ordinary Southeast Asian people and to contribute to the goals set out in the association’s charter. There will inevitably be political wrangling about what subjects to include and how to discuss the many sensitive issues in regional human rights. However, there are also good places to start.

In Cambodia, the establishment of the Khmer Rouge tribunal helped create political space for educating the public about genocide and other grave human rights violations. Most young Cambodians have only begun to learn about the human rights principles that can help prevent future atrocities. The recent verdict against that tribunal’s first defendant, Duch, provides one possible starting point for teaching those principles. AICHR can usefully assist Cambodians with that educational effort, working alongside experts and civil society organisations in the region. Surely, the goal of genocide prevention is widely shared in Southeast Asia.

Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries have a chance to build regional leadership and international credibility by working with AICHR on human rights education. For ASEAN, effective human rights education will enhance the association’s reputation and relevance. It will also convey interest in local futures and help build a sense of regional community.

John D Ciorciari teaches international relations at the University of Michigan. Youk Chhang is director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia.

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