SO, Asean finally has a human rights commission of its own, the Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights.
Such is the importance of human rights these days that everybody feels the need to have a human rights commission of one sort or another.
Whether it is designed to protect and promote human rights or stymie the whole process is another matter.
The modern concept of human rights owes its existence to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), itself the culmination of a long struggle, through many centuries, to establish the very idea that every human being has the right to live in freedom and dignity.
The UDHR is an amazing, even radical, document that both inspires disenfranchised multitudes and infuriates autocratic governments.
It boldly declares that all human beings “are born free and are equal in dignity and rights… that everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”
It also states that no one shall be held in slavery or servitude and that no one shall be subject to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Arbitrary arrest and detention is prohibited.
It declares as well that everyone has the right to freedom of movement, to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (including the right to change his religion or belief).
It goes on to expressly state that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression as well as the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.”
Intrinsic to all this is the even more radical idea that government exists to serve the people and shall always be subject to them. “Govern-ment of the people, by the people and for the people,” as Abraham Lincoln so aptly put it nearly a hundred and fifty years ago.
These rights (not privileges to be extended or denied at the pleasure of the state) were further entrenched in international law by a number of specific UN conventions that together comprise an international bill of rights.
It is doubtful whether such an amazing document would even pass muster if the UN General Assembly were to vote on it today. Many governments would argue that its principles are too sweeping, that it gives the individual too much freedom at the expense of the state, that it is a “western” imposition, that it is inconsistent with Asian or African values, that it is culturally insensitive, etc.
Indeed, it is so controversial that many governments have still not acceded to all the human rights conventions while others are constantly conspiring to roll back some of its provisions.
Yet, can there be any doubt that the UDHR accurately captures the yearnings of all peoples, no matter what their religion or culture or history, to be free?
The proposed Asean human rights commission makes passing reference to all these rights and conventions in its Terms of Reference (TOR). It looks great on paper and is being hailed as a historic step forward for the regional grouping.
However, given the tepid commitment to human rights by individual Asean countries thus far, one has to wonder how effective this new body will be, or whether it is even designed to be effective.
The commission’s TOR stresses the sacrosanct Asean principles of non-interference and consensus. While these principles might have served Asean well in other areas, it will prove to be a major stumbling block in tackling human rights abuses.
Asean consists of countries with different political systems. There are one-party states that brook no opposition.
There is an absolute monarchy. There are evolving democracies. There is an outright military dictatorship.
In Singapore, the opposition as well as other civil society groups, are constantly harassed and intimidated. In Malaysia, there is the infamous ISA which allows for detention without trial.
In Thailand, Vietnam and other Asean countries, minorities are suppressed and marginalised. In Myanmar, an entire nation, as well as the world’s most famous political prisoner, is held hostage at the barrel of a gun.
Across the region, thousands of hapless people are trafficked and sold into slavery each year while refugees are routinely detained, whipped, pushed out to sea, abused and killed.
How does one even begin to find consensus on human rights within such a grouping?
And non-interference will only ensure that the worst atrocities remain beyond the scope of the commission.
It is axiomatic that human rights must be based upon international law, not upon consensus.
And it must never be at the mercy of the principle of non-interference. Non-interference is the last redoubt of tyranny these days.
The fact remains that despite significant advances in democratic governance, there remains a culture of autocracy within Asean that is antipathetic to the fundamental principles enshrined in the UDHR.
It is hard not to conclude therefore, that the setting up of the commission is mere chimera, smoke and mirrors, a grand ‘sandiwara,’ and little else.
In the final analysis, Asean’s best hope for promoting and protecting human rights lies not with its governments but with its NGOs and civil society groups, and the brave men and women who lead them.
Thanks to their untiring efforts and great sacrifices, human rights is now squarely on the Asean agenda. An impotent human rights commission is unlikely to satisfy them.