HUA HIN, Thailand (MindaNews/24 October) – Southeast Asia formally launched on Friday its own regional human rights body amid criticisms from civil society over its supposed lack of clear-cut protection mechanisms and capability to address various human rights issues within the 10-nation bloc. The heads of states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which gathered here for its 15th summit, officially adopted the establishment of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and endorsed the implementation of its terms of reference (TOR) during the body’s inaugural ceremony held at the Dusit Thani resort hotel here at noon Friday.
“(We) emphasize the importance of the AICHR as a historic milestone in the ASEAN community-building process, and as a vehicle for progressive social development and justice, the full realization of human dignity and the attainment of a higher quality of life for ASEAN peoples,” the state leaders stressed in the “Cha-am Hua Hin Declaration on the Inauguration of the AICHR.”
They lauded the inauguration of the AICHR, citing it “gives concrete expression to the implementation of Article 14 of the ASEAN Charter and the regional bloc’s commitment to pursue forward-looking strategies to strengthen regional cooperation on human rights.”
Article 14 of the ASEAN Charter specifically provided for the establishment of an ASEAN human rights body in line with its commitment to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms in the region.
Last July, ASEAN Foreign Ministers officially adopted and endorsed the approval the human rights body TOR, which was drafted by a high-level regional panel that it earlier formed.
The TOR specifically spelled out the promotion and protection of human rights as the main spirit of the regional human rights body.
However, human rights groups said the TOR did not provide for specific protection mechanisms, making its function focused entirely on human rights promotion.
Yap Swee Seng, executive director of the Bangkok-based Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, said they welcome ASEAN’s initiative to establish the AICHR but seriously doubts whether it really intends to come up with a functional human rights body.
“The TOR did not provide for mechanism that would ensure the independence of the commission. There was no guarantee that independent human rights experts will be appointed to the commission,” he said in a press conference late Thursday.
Yap said civil society groups had lobbied with the governments of the 10-nation bloc for the holding of transparent national selection processes for the representatives of the AICHR but only Indonesia and Thailand implemented such move.
He lamented that even the Philippines, which he described as among the supposed “more democratic” states in the ASEAN, has rejected the proposed national selection process.
The national selection processes in Thailand and Indonesia held last month led to the appointment of noted civil society leaders Dr. Sriprapha Petcharamesree of Thailand and Rafendi Djamin of Indonesia as country-representatives to the AICHR.
Last Wednesday, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo appointed Ambassador Rosario Manalo as the Philippines’ representative to the AICHR.
Manalo, who is chair of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization-Philippines, was part of the high-level panel earlier created by ASEAN Foreign Ministers to draft the human rights body’s guiding terms.
In an interview with reporters before the AICHR’s inaugural rites here, Manalo said she was surprised with her appointment to the AICHR.
But she immediately defended the move saying the body’s TOR specifically cited that each member-state has the mandate to appoint its own representative to the AICHR through a process that it deems appropriate.
“Each country in the ASEAN has its own system and nobody can just come in and dictate what these states should do,” Manalo said.
But Sister Cresencia Lucero, Task Force Detainees of the Philippines executive director, questioned Manalo’s appointment saying the government should have opted for a transparent and democratic selection process.
“We are challenging the government to explain why there was no transparency in the selection process. If they really want this human rights commission to work, they have to be transparent on the process,” said Lucero, who was chosen by the Asean Peoples’ Forum (APF) to represent the country during Friday’s informal dialogue between ASEAN leaders and civil society representatives.
Sources within the APF claimed that as early as the Asean Ministerial Meeting in Phuket last July, Manalo already expressed her desire to be appointed as the country-representative to the human rights body.
Meantime, in response to the growing criticisms on the establishment of the AICHR, ASEAN leaders cited in its declaration that the TOR of the newly-established regional human rights body will be reviewed every five years in a bid to strengthen its mandate and functions and further develop mechanisms on both the protection and promotion of human rights.
“(We) express confidence that ASEAN cooperation on human rights will continue to evolve and develop so that the AICHR will be the overarching institution responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights in ASEAN,” they noted in the declaration.
To support the activities of the AICHR, the ASEAN leaders initially pledged a funding of some US $ 200,000 for its first year of operation and agreed to later provide additional funds through contributions from among its member-states.
Manalo acknowledged that the human rights commission’s mandate will initially focus on the promotion of human rights awareness within the region but pointed out that it would later cover the protection aspect based on the evolutionary process provided for in the TOR.
She said the commission was also required to conduct regular engagements with the civil society in the region.
“We want to see a civil society that will have the capacity to understand the concept of human rights because how it (AICHR) will eventually evolve falls on the shoulders of the people of ASEAN,” she said.
Aside from Manalo, Djamin and Sriprapha, the other appointed AICHR representatives were Om Yentieng of Cambodia, Bounkeut Sangsomsak of Lao PDR, Pehin Datu Imam Dato Paduka Seri Ustaz of Brunei, Haji Awang Abdul Hamid Bakal of Malaysia, Kyaw Tint Swe of Myanmar, Richard Magnus of Singapore and Do Ngoc Son of Viet Nam.
As cited in the TOR, each AICHR representative serves a term of three years and may be consecutively re-appointed for only one more term. (Allen V. Estabillo/MindaNews)