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Watchdogs bash plans for ASEAN rights body

AREGIONAL human rights body set to be launched today has come under fire from local and international rights groups, who say it lacks independence and could be “held hostage” to politics.

The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), which will be the first body of its kind in the Asia-Pacific region, is to be officially launched today at the organisation’s 15th annual summit in Hua Hin, Thailand.

Homayoun Alizadeh, the regional representative for the UN Human Rights Council, said in a statement Thursday that the planned ASEAN body represents an “important commitment by states in the region to move beyond mere words” in relation to human rights issues.

Critics, however, say that despite a vague mandate to “promote” rights, the body will lack the teeth to punish offenders.

“The problem with this commission is that it has not been given a mandate to investigate any complaints,” said Debbie Stothard, media coordinator for the ASEAN People’s Forum.

“The point of a [human rights] commission is to lift the bar. It shouldn’t be sitting at the lowest common denominator,” she added. “It’s like throwing a naked policeman into the street and expecting him to do his job.”

The draft terms of reference for the new body, approved at a ministerial meeting in July, lists no sanctions for countries that fail to provide the required reports on their rights situations.

The AICHR will feature representatives from each of the group’s 10 member states, who will serve three-year terms, but Stothard said the body’s commissioner will only work on a part-time, voluntary basis.

“How can the position be effective when the human rights violators are working full-time?” she added.

Kek Pung, president of local rights group Licadho, said Cambodian rights activists were hoping for an independent watchdog, but that the new body would be unlikely to alter the local situation.

“If this mechanism is weak – like the one we have now – it will not be much help,” she said. She said the AICHR’s lack of teeth was “no surprise” given ASEAN’s members, which include known rights abusers.

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

Stothard said the original meaning of non-interference – to prevent member states from funding armed groups seeking to topple ASEAN governments – had been “perverted” and could now be applied to stifle action on human rights issues.

David Mathieson, a Human Rights Watch consultant based in Chiang Mai, said the AICHR’s aims had to be seen in the context of ASEAN’s structure and previous achievements.

“The expectations here have to be contrasted with the performance and effectiveness of ASEAN as a whole,” he said.

Mathieson said that though the AICHR would be “partly window-dressing”, there were elements within ASEAN favouring a more progressive stance on human rights.

“I don’t think merely having this mechanism will change things for the better … but it’s far more productive to have the body and to be able to put pressure on countries,” he said. “That’s going to be a long, hard process.”

Om Yentieng, chairman of the government’s Human Rights Committee, could not be reached on Thursday.

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