The 42nd ASEAN Ministerial Meeting that recently concluded in Phuket, Thailand, raised the question of whether ASEAN will be able to transform itself into an organisation capable of effectively addressing human rights issues in the region ("Rights body lacks teeth: NGOs", July 21, 2009).
For the past year, ASEAN civic groups have submitted documents stemming from dozens of national and regional conferences demanding that ASEAN devise a human rights mechanism to conduct fact-finding investigations, receive complaints from human rights victims and organisations, and conduct reviews of the human rights situations of member countries.
But the final terms of reference for the ASEAN Human Rights Body (AHRB), approved on July 20, do not reflect these recommendations.
Under the terms of reference, the body's mandate will involve primarily the promotion rather than the protection of human rights. There is no article mentioning possible actions the body could take against states found to have committed massive human rights violations.
ASEAN officials praised themselves for taking a progressive leap with the body, though we must note that ASEAN falls far behind Europe, Africa and the Americas, where regional commissions capable of investigating the human rights violations of member states have been in place for decades.
ASEAN must now reflect on how human rights can be effectively protected. ASEAN governments must not be so naïve as to think that criticism of rights violations will be directed towards the AHRB rather than individual nations. And both ASEAN and the AHRB must be ready to answer to citizens of ASEAN countries and the international community if, in the years to come, the AHRB fails to strike the right balance between human rights promotion and protection.
The writer is an analyst on Southeast Asian affairs.
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