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NGOs reject regional rights body

Civic leaders discuss the proposed Asean rights body at a meeting Tuesday. SEBASTIAN STRANGIO

A COALITION of local human rights groups on Tuesday rejected the draft proposal for a regional human rights body adopted at last weekend's Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Thailand, citing "significant concerns" relating to the body's "independence, accountability and effectiveness".

A draft proposal for the Asean Human Rights Body (AHRB) was adopted by the foreign ministers of Asean's 10 member states Tuesday, in line with the Asean Charter adopted in November 2007.

But in a joint statement Tuesday, local NGOs criticised the adopted terms of reference (TOR), arguing that appointments to the body - to be made by Asean member governments - would directly compromise its independence.

"We are concerned that this body will not operate effectively because most human rights violation cases are committed by government officials or state institutions," the statement said.

"The AHRB should be accountable to the Asean peoples and to the victims of human rights violations instead of being accountable to the respective appointing governments only."

The statement argued that the proposed AHRB's role will be "purely consultative" if it is not also given a mandate to conduct fact-finding missions, publish findings and enforce its rulings.

The AURB should be accountable to... victims of human rights violations.

It also called on the High Level Panel on the Asean Human Rights Body to incorporate the civil society recommendations when the TOR are finalised at an Asean ministerial meeting in July.

"We see that the first draft mechanism is very weak," said Thun Saray, president of local rights group Adhoc, at a press conference Tuesday.

"Civil society groups want revisions to be made, not just by consulting with us on human rights issues but also to ensure protection against human rights abuses in the region."

However, a fully independent human rights body is likely to be a challenge in a regional grouping that contains Myanmar - a military dictatorship - and Vietnam and Laos, one-party communist states.

Conflicting priorities

Although Asean's charter pledges it to establish a regional rights body, the goal appears to clash with some of its core political precepts - including the "non-interference in member states' internal affairs" - raising fears that the body will lack the political will to enforce human rights standards.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Myanmar counterpart Thein Sein reportedly blocked Cambodian and Myanmar human rights activists from taking part in a rare face-to-face meeting with Asean leaders, drawing criticisms from international rights groups.

Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said Sunday that while the involvement of civil society in Asean proceedings may have ruffled some authoritarian feathers, several Asean countries had taken large steps to ensure NGO participation.

"If you look at Asean as a regional body, [civil society involvement] is not the norm. But if you look at individual governments, it is the norm.

The Philippines in particular is very good at setting up parallel meetings on the side of the official meetings," he said.

Koul Panha, executive director of local election watchdog Comfrel, likewise said he had "a lot of hope" for the AHRB, citing recent human rights reforms in other Asean member countries, including Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

"I hope that some major Asean countries will encourage the formation of a political and economic community, and that we can use [human rights] policies to pressure individual countries," he said.

Thun Saray said that he did not expect the AHRB would be as binding as similar bodies in Europe and the United States, but that civil society would take action to ensure "a maximum degree of protection" against rights abuses in the region.

He added that the High Level Panel had already incorporated some civil society recommendations into the draft TOR and was hopeful more would be included in the final document at July's meeting.



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