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Report to examine status of human rights in ASEAN

THE recently established Human Rights Resource Centre for ASEAN has announced that it has embarked on a study analysing the legal framework supporting human rights in ASEAN’s 10 member states, an early step in the efforts of human rights activists to spell out the bloc’s – and Cambodia’s – commitment to human rights.

The report’s lead author, Mahdev Mohan, an assistant professor of law at Singapore Management University, said the centre’s report would seek to give clearer meaning to the principles of “rule of law and good governance” and “respect for and protection of human rights”.

Mohan said the ASEAN Charter did not define the two concepts, nor “explain how they are [or should be] implemented in ASEAN”, and that the study would be a good first step in finding consensus within ASEAN member states as to their meaning.

We hope that the report will be viewed as an academically sound baseline report ... not one that plays to anyone’s politics.

The researchers will meet in Jakarta next month to determine appropriate methodologies, and the complete report will be presented in March 2011 at an ASEAN-wide human rights conference, according to a statement issued by the HRRCA last week.
Researchers will first set out to define the rule of law according to “minimum international standards” and determine how each state understands these concepts, Mohan said.

Then, they will evaluate the extent to which member states meet those standards and “consider ways in which these countries can improve their adherence to these standards going forward”.

The study will include country-specific reports on all ten ASEAN member states, put together by lead researchers with legal expertise from at least eight ASEAN countries, Mohan said.

Phun Vidjia, a professor of law at Phnom Penh’s Pannasastra University, will play that role for Cambodia.

The report will “highlight what ASEAN member states are doing right and identify issues where there is room for improvement”, Mohan said. “We hope that the report will be viewed as an academically sound baseline report designed to assist ASEAN human rights processes, not one that plays to anyone’s politics.”

HRRCA board member and rights activist Theary Seng said that this would provide an objective evaluation of Cambodia’s progress on the rule of law and human rights issues, “first as a matter of a linear perspective set against Cambodia’s individual historical backdrop and legal framework, and second, as a matter of regional comparison”.

Clash of principles
Observers have long been skeptical of ASEAN’s commitment to human rights, which have remained vague, unenforced and distorted by ASEAN’s principles of mutual “non-interference” and consensus-based decision-making.

When ASEAN created the Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights in October 2009, some human rights activists walked out in protest, arguing that these principles would give any member state an effective veto over decisions they might not approve of.

Chris Roberts, assistant professor in international relations and Asian studies at the University of Canberra, said that he viewed these core principles of ASEAN as “contradicting” its commitment to human rights.

He wondered, for example, how far an investigation into human rights in Myanmar could really go.

Josh Kurlantzick, an expert on Southeast Asian affairs at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said he did not hold out much hope that human rights could become a “core value” of ASEAN.

But David Cohen, a professor of humanities and director of the War Crimes Centre at UCLA Berkeley, who was involved in the creation of the HRRCA, wrote in March that it took civil society groups from ASEAN states 15 years of work to create the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission, which was “only the beginning”.

The best way to make the Southeast Asian human rights commission effective, he said, was “through supporting and strengthening the kind of regional civil society initiatives that contributed to its creation”.

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