Subject: IPS: Is ASEAN's Human Rights Body a Paper Tiger?

also: 2 JP reports: 
Experts, MPs welcome rights body in proposed ASEAN charter
SEAN ministers wrap up meeting

Inter Press Service July 31, 2007

Southeast Asia: Regional Human Rights Body with Teeth or a Paper Tiger?

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK - At first glance, it appeared that South-east Asian governments were determined to strengthen the language of human rights across the region. A meeting of foreign ministers in Manila declared that a regional rights body would be part of a new charter for the 10-member bloc to be approved at a summit in November.

But on closer scrutiny, human rights groups and members of opposition parties say that the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) will have to spell out the powers of such an entity if this initiative to be taken seriously. Such details have yet to be worked out, officials at the ongoing ASEAN ministerial meeting in the Philippines capital told the press.

"They need to give this human rights body investigating powers to look at violations committed in any ASEAN country and to have powers to seek corrective measures," says Basil Fernando, executive director of the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), a non-governmental watchdog. "There must also be a proper mechanism in place for victims to submit complaints for the commission to investigate."

These features will be hard to sidestep, since the ASEAN human rights body will be judged by the standards set by similar regional commissions created elsewhere, he explained during a telephone interview from Hong Kong, where the AHRC is based. "There are regional human rights bodies in Africa and South America that have powers to investigate and more."

"Civil society groups who have long campaigned for such a body will follow the events over the next few months as ASEAN gives shape to this regional human rights commission," Debbie Stothard, head of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (ALTSEAN), a regional rights lobby, told IPS. "It is too early to cheer because the creation of the commission for now seems to be more like an agreement of a policy to do so."

The governments should know that "even a paper tiger will not be able to cover up the glaring human rights violations in the region," she added, referring to language common in South-east Asia to describe laws that sound strong on paper but are weak in application. "Human rights even in the more progressive ASEAN countries leave a lot to be desired," Stothard said.

Typical among them is Singapore, the most affluent ASEAN member, which will be hosting the bloc's annual summit in November. The new rights body is due to be confirmed as part of ASEAN's first regional charter. Opposition political figures -- for whom a human rights commission is important in the wake of regular harassment --have not been included in discussions to create this new mechanism.

"The opposition and civil society groups in Singapore are concerned because their views were not sought regards the commission," Chee Siok Chin, a ranking member of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), said in a telephone interview from the city-state. "We have only heard the views from the establishment."

Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia were the original members of ASEAN, set up 40 years ago to strengthen regional economic ties and act as a bulwark against the spread of communism in the region. Of them, Indonesia currently tops the list of nations advancing on the human rights and democracy fronts. Malaysia and Singapore, by contrast, have governments known for authoritarian features, where freedom of expression is regularly under threat or non-existent.

The members who joined since 1967 are Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. With the exception of Cambodia, these countries do not offer space for political and civil liberties. Brunei has an absolute monarchy, while Laos and Vietnam are under the grip of communist parties since the mid-1970s.

It is military-ruled Burma, admitted to ASEAN a decade ago, that looms as the test-case to measure how meaningful the new regional rights body is. "The human rights violations in Burma should be among the first cases the new commission should investigate," says AHRC's Fernando. "It is a good test case, because Burma ranks as one of the human rights violators on the global scale."

Former Burmese political prisoners drew ASEAN's attention on a related front Monday, when they said that the very day the agreement for the new human rights body was approved, Jul. 30, the Burmese junta cracked down on human rights activists in the country.

A private teacher was sentenced to three years imprisonment and fined because "he let members of Human Rights Defenders and Promoters have a human rights training at his place," according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

Burma is holding more than 1,100 political prisoners, has placed under house arrest for over 11 years the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and has crushed all signs of dissent for years. The junta has also gained notoriety for using rape as a weapon of war against minority communities, commandeering thousands into slave-like forced labour camps and prevented international humanitarian groups aiding the weak.

Such abuse has been known by the other ASEAN governments, who opted to defend Burma from international criticism after it joined the bloc in 1997. But since 2003, the spirit of cordiality began to fray, as ASEAN was taken to task by the European Union, the U.S. government and at international summits for permitting the oppression in Burma.

Led by Malaysia, originally a major supporter of Burma's membership into the bloc, ASEAN governments turned the heat on their recalcitrant neighbour.

This week's announcement to create a regional rights body confirmed ASEAN's temperament towards the military regime. "ASEAN had shielded the Burmese military from international criticism in the past, but the regime has become a source of shame and embarrassment. They cannot do it anymore," Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst living in exile, told IPS. "Burma has to accept the changes."

The Burmese people will benefit if the new rights commission proves to be independent and effective, he added. "People are arrested there for small things which would be taken for granted in other countries -- even for having a suspicious look -- due to the draconian laws."


The Jakarta Post Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Experts, MPs welcome rights body in proposed ASEAN charter

Indonesian lawmakers and experts welcomed Tuesday the decision of members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to include a provision for a human rights body in its proposed historic charter.

"We welcome the provision for a rights body in the charter. This is the breakthrough we have been fighting for. We hope the leaders will not have problems approving it in Singapore in November," lawmaker Marzuki Darusman from Golkar, the country's largest political party, told The Jakarta Post on Wednesday.

Marzuki, who is also the chairman of the ASEAN Human Rights Commission, said Golkar was ready to ratify the charter once it reached the House of Representatives.

Djoko Susilo, a lawmaker from the National Mandate Party (PAN), said he hoped the creation of the human rights body would force Myanmar, an ASEAN member, to speed up its road map to democracy and release political prisoners.

"I think it is time for Myanmar to comply with international human rights standards," he said.

The 10 foreign ministers taking part in the ASEAN Minister's Meeting (AMM) in Manila on Monday decided to include provisions for a human rights commission in the charter after Myanmar gave up its resistance to the plan.

"Conforming with the purposes and principles of the ASEAN Charter relating to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, ASEAN shall establish a human rights body", the first complete draft of the charter read.

The final draft of the charter will be submitted to ASEAN leaders in Singapore in November before a final vote on its contents takes place.

The provision for a human rights body would open up the possibility for the establishment of a regional human rights commission, which would have the authority to assess a country's human rights situation and investigate human rights violations in member countries.

Observers said Myanmar may have been fearful the commission would eventually force its military junta to account for human rights abuses in the country, including the prosecution of minority and opposition groups and the continued detention of Aung San Suu Kyi.

International relations expert at the University of Indonesia Hariyadi Wirawan said difficulties may be encountered when the grouping starts deciding on what kind of human rights body it should establish.

"It is a very encouraging progress. But the problem now lies in the authority and scope of the rights body. It will be difficult given the wide spectrum of political orientation of ASEAN members. We have the communist state of Vietnam, the junta-ran states of Myanmar and Thailand and quasi-democratic Singapore. However, we do have Indonesia and the Philippines, both of which are relatively advanced in their human rights affairs and democracy," he said.

He said Indonesia should take a leading role in drafting the terms of reference for the rights body.

Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda has expressed a willingness to make Indonesia the first ASEAN country to come up with a detailed draft of the terms of reference for the rights body.

"Don't worry, we will come up with the first terms of reference for the rights body. I have instructed my subordinates to work on it as soon as they return to Jakarta," he said in Manila.

Meanwhile, the high-level task force drafting the landmark charter is confident it will meet its November deadline in time for the 13th ASEAN Summit to be held in Singapore.

The task force's chair, Ambassador Rosario Manalo of the Philippines, said in a press briefing Tuesday that based on progress made, there was a great possibility the final draft of the charter could be submitted for approval in the first week of September.

"The foreign ministers are already happy with what we have accomplished. We are reasonably confident that we will meet the deadline," she said.

"That is why we're proposing to the foreign ministers to review first the substantive portion in a special meeting. If there is a need to go further than that, it will only have to be to tie up loose ends."

Rosario said the charter would strengthen ASEAN by making it a more responsive, rules-based and people-centered organization and would create a culture of honoring obligations among its members. (JP/Abdul Khalik)


The Jakarta Post Wednesday, August 1, 2007

ASEAN ministers wrap up meeting

Abdul Khalik, The Jakarta Post, Manila

Foreign ministers from 16 countries meeting this week in Manila appealed for the release of South Korean hostages in Afghanistan and confirmed their commitment to enhance energy cooperation in line with the January Cebu Declaration on East Asia energy security.

The ministers from the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) plus China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand exchanged views on the situation in Afghanistan and expressed deep concern over the recent abduction of innocent citizens in South Korea.

The foreign ministers released a statement that read:

"We convey our deepest sympathy to the bereaved families, people and government of the Republic of Korea for the unjustifiable killing of two Korean citizens.

"For humanitarian reasons, we appeal for the immediate and unconditional release of the remaining hostages to enable them to reunite with their loved ones."

The appeal for the release of hostages was repeated during the ASEAN Plus Three meeting, which included the 10 ASEAN members, Japan, China and South Korea.

Philippines Foreign Minister Alberto Romulo, who chaired both meetings, said the statement expressed solidarity with the hostages, the people of South Korea and all those who wished for the swift, safe and unconditional return of the hostages.

South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Park In-sook, who attended the EAS meeting on behalf of Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon said the people and government of South Korea were deeply appreciative of the minister's statement.

The ASEAN Plus Three foreign ministers also renewed their commitment to work together to meet those challenges, especially in promoting peace, stability and economic progress in the region.

They reaffirmed their support for the six party talks process as the most viable mechanism for peacefully resolving the North Korean nuclear issue.

They stressed the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was essential in maintaining peace and security in the region, and expressed support for the resolution of the nuclear issue through dialogue and negotiation.

The East Asian foreign ministers also reiterated their determination to continue building on the gains of the East Asia Summit, which met in Cebu last January.

They said they particularly wanted to focus on the area of energy cooperation, in line with the Cebu Declaration on East Asia Energy Security.

Romulo said the Energy Cooperation Task Force, established by the East Asian leaders, had held four meetings and had identified priority work streams.

Their priorities included energy efficiency and conservation; biofuels for transportation and other purposes; and energy market integration.

ASEAN countries called for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Iraq in order to bring back normality to the embattled country.

A joint communiqu‚ issued by the foreign ministers at the end of their two-day 40th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting held at the Philippine International Convention Center, said they were deeply concerned over the continued instability in Iraq even if they reaffirmed their support for the Iraqi government and its efforts to ensure unity, security, stability and prosperity in Iraq.

The minister's ending statement said: "Towards this end, we believe that the phased and calibrated withdrawal of foreign forces in Iraq, taking into account the conditions on the ground, will contribute towards bringing normalcy."

They said they welcomed the outcomes of international meetings in Baghdad and Sharm El-Sheikh aimed at expediting national reconciliation and reconstruction.

They said these were crucial to the attainment of peace, security and development in Iraq.

The foreign ministers also expressed deep concern over the situation in the Middle East and said there was a need for substantial progress in the quest for a just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the Middle East. More stories -- Page 3, 11, 12

------------------------------------------ Joyo Indonesia News Service

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