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Rights body lacks teeth: NGOs

A REGIONAL human rights body approved at the 42nd ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Phuket has come under fire from local and international rights groups, who say the proposed body lacks the teeth necessary to deter rights abuses in the region.

Delegates were set Monday to approve the terms of reference for the long-awaited ASEAN Human Rights Body (AHRB), paving the way for its establishment at the organisation's annual summit in October.

At a press conference Sunday, Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said the rights body would be approved Monday and subjected to a review in five years' time. He also said country representatives would serve three-year terms and that the posts would be open to civil society group members.

Critics say the body - expected to be known as the ASEAN Inter-Governmental Commission of Human Rights - is unlikely to have much effect because it focuses too much on the "promotion" of human rights rather than their protection.

The AHRB draft terms of reference tabled in Phuket lists no sanctions for countries that fail to provide the required reports on their rights situations.

The draft says the body will promote rights "within the regional context" and "[take] into account the balance between rights and responsibilities".

"The protection mandate has been compromised," said Yuyun Wahyuningrum, East Asia programme manager at the Bangkok-based Asia Forum for Human Rights and Development.

"What is the point of having an ASEAN human rights protection mechanism if the body cannot ... ensure the protection of people in ASEAN?"

She also criticised the absence of a provision guaranteeing the independence of country representatives on the body.

Thun Saray, president of the rights group Adhoc, said Sunday that ASEAN's principle of consensus decision-making had watered down the body's protection mandate.

"We would like to have this sort of protection mandate for the ASEAN human rights body, but right now we don't see [this] clearly reflected in the terms of reference," he said.

Though the ASEAN Charter, adopted in November 2007, encourages member states to "promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms", some said the goal appears to clash with other core principles, including "non-interference" in the internal affairs of other ASEAN countries.

"The two are contradictory," said Kek Galabru, president of local rights group Licadho.

"The respect for fundamental human rights and non-interference, I don't think that these two can go together."

She added that the body would be "nonsense" without a protection mandate, but said that gradual progress could be achieved if some countries appoint independent experts to the AHRB.

"It will be very hard, like pushing an elephant, but maybe one day [we]'ll get something," she said. "I think we have no alternative."

Wahyuningrum said the concept of "non-interference" needed to be redefined to exclude human rights abuses, which stood above purely national concerns.

She said, though, that she was encouraged by ASEAN's willingness to address human rights directly.

"If you compare with five or 10 years ago, it was very rare to hear human rights mentioned," she said.

Senior CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said Monday that Cambodia had no objection to an independent ASEAN Human Rights Body so long as it was implemented "in parallel to the situation and ability of each country".




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