ASEAN rights charter met with criticism

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MONDAY, 20 JULY 2009

New Delhi (mizzima) – Even as foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are set to today approve the terms of reference for an ASEAN Human Rights Body, activists said the grouping must ensure that the body is not a mere ‘Talking Show’.

David Scott Mathieson, Burma researcher for Human Rights Watch, a New York-based rights group, on Monday said while ASEAN’S initiative in establishing a human rights mechanism is a positive sign, it must be vigilant against it becoming a mere paper agreement.

ASEAN foreign ministers, currently gathering on Thailand’s resort island of Phukhet for the annual ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting, are reportedly prepared to endorse the terms of reference for the new human rights body in accordance with the recently established ASEAN Charter.

According to Mathieson, the biggest challenge facing the group in attempting to better codify its internal workings is the establishment of a human rights body with the corresponding assurances that all members commit to the body and violators are held accountable.

Being the first ever attempt by the 10-member bloc to tackle the issue of human rights, the ASEAN Human Rights Body is applauded by some rights activists, who, however, remain concerned that there are flaws in its terms of references that need to be addressed, including the strengthening of the body.

The draft terms of reference state the body’s purpose as “to promote and protect the human rights and fundamental freedom” of ASEAN citizens.

Yet, rights activists said the basic rights of the people must be protected before other rights are promoted, expressing skepticism of the body and its ability to tackle rights issues.

Aung Myo Min, a Burmese human rights activist based in Thailand, said the body lacks the necessary protective measures, including a mechanism to report on and investigate rights violations as well as the means to take effective action against perpetrators.

“If it is goes like this, the body has no mechanism to condemn or to take action against rights abuses. And for countries like Burma there is no mechanism to pressure them,” Aung Myo Min argued.

He added that the current terms of reference would not be a problem for Burma’s military rulers to endorse and that they would gladly do so, as it would give them something to combat international pressure that the regime is not doing enough to tackle the sensitive issue.

He said ASEAN should work toward having a convention on human rights – where member states would commit themselves to the protection of human rights, form a commission with authority to investigate and report on rights violations, and establish a court empowered to take action against perpetrators.

Nonetheless, despite the criticism, some believe the rights body, which maintains a tradition of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states, is a significant move and hope it can evolve into a more effective body.

“We have to hope, and though that may be over optimistic, to have a human rights mechanism in ASEAN after decades of not having one is a significant step,” stated Mathieson.

But he added that all member states and civil society groups must ensure that the body works and has an impact.

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