The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) says the organisation is committed to promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms in the region, and that it will be able to demonstrate progress in its mission before its next summit.

However, some civil society organisations (CSOs) claim that the AICHR has only made limited contributions to improving the human rights situation in ASEAN to date.

The ASEAN human rights mechanism has reached its 10th anniversary this year, which was marked at the 4th ASEAN Human Rights Dialogue held in Siem Reap province on November 19 as part of Cambodia’s duties as chair of ASEAN in 2022.

The AICHR human rights dialogue was attended by officials from ASEAN member states to share ideas, best practices and experiences to promote and protect human rights in the region.

“Human rights and fundamental freedoms are now even more important than before in solving current issues in ASEAN amid economic hardship caused by Covid-19, food and energy crises as well as changes in the political situation for each country in the region,” said Sidharto Reza Suryodipuro, director-general for ASEAN cooperation at Indonesia’s foreign ministry, who was in attendance at the meeting.

The 4th human rights dialogue had topics on its agenda such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, rights of migrant workers, women’s rights, women in politics,treatment of women detainees, prevention of forced labour, children’s rights, preventing human trafficking and the rights of people with disabilities.

Also on the agenda were discussions on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), businesses and their impact on human rights, measures to deal with Covid-19, poverty alleviation, death penalty elimination, human rights education and outreach, human rights in the judiciary and climate change.

Chin Malin, representing Cambodia as vice-president of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee (CHRC), said the dialogue was set up as a forum for discussion and exchanges on the experiences of ASEAN’s member states with the issues.

“This regional mechanism aims to increase cooperation, mutual support and dissemination of information about national and international laws related to human rights as well as outreach about human

rights to members of the public, governments officials and law enforcement officials, so that they better understand the available legal provisions related to human rights,” Malin said.

At the same time, some observers claimed that the situation of human rights in the region continues to worsen as ASEAN’s leaders have not done enough to solve any human rights-related issues.

Am Sam Ath, deputy director for rights group LICADHO, said he welcomed the fact that ASEAN through the AICHR has taken up a dialogue on human rights issues. However, he said AICHR’s contributions were a small factor in improving the human rights situation in the region due to the fact that ASEAN does not have clear standards requiring member states to respect human rights.

“ASEAN abides by the consensus principle, meaning that only when all of the 10 member states agree on a particular issue can they make a decision to take action. There was one year when AICHR could not issue any joint communique.

“In ASEAN, some of the countries walk the democratic path, while some others remain authoritarian and communist. Those countries’ standards for human rights are different and that is the issue,” he said.

Soeng Sen Karuna, spokesman for rights group ADHOC, said the recent “backsliding” in the human rights situation in the region came in part from the fact that AICHR members have not followed the human rights treaties and instruments which they are signatory to.

“As human rights defenders, we want the governments and AICHR to review their conventions and treaties they have signed. If they have not been properly implemented, they should take measures to do so to ensure that all member states fulfil their duties as stated in those instruments,” he said.