Five Success Stories of the Working Group for ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism

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ASEAN has struggled with its own human rights issues even amidst rapid economic growth and development in the region. While the subject of human rights is viewed as a grey area in many policy debates and discussions, countries in the region have taken steps to establish human rights institutions to progress human rights for ASEAN. These institutions play an important role in not just building awareness on the importance of addressing human rights issues in ASEAN but also to implement various policies and mechanisms that lead to greater protection of human rights. The Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism is one such group that has been working to make strides in human rights protection for the region.

  1. Listed in the ASEAN Charter in 2007

The Working Group is the only human rights organization listed in the ASEAN Charter. The Working Group never requested for the status, but because the Working Group has been cooperating with ASEAN and supporting its human rights endeavors since 1996, ASEAN included them in the annex two of the ASEAN Charter under the ‘entities associated with ASEAN.’

The adoption of the ASEAN Charter is a huge step forward for ASEAN, It underlines that ASEAN is governed by “the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance” and where there is “respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms”. The incorporation of a human rights body as an organ of ASEAN (Article 14, ASEAN Charter) is a breakthrough for human rights in Southeast Asia, indicating the willingness of ASEAN governments to cooperate on the promotion and protection of human rights.

  1. The establishment of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) in 2009

AICHR was set up in compliance with Article 14 of the ASEAN Charter which states that ASEAN shall establish an ASEAN human rights body to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people in the region. The Working Group was instrumental in the birth of AICHR. Indeed, they made submissions to senior ASEAN officials on the Draft Agreement for the Establishment of the ASEAN Human Rights Commission. Dr. Sriprapha Petcharamesree, a member of the Working Group, was also selected as the first Thai representative to AICHR. While AICHR has a rather limited range of action at the moment, this is defined by the terms of reference set by ASEAN that are to be reviewed every five years. This allows a gradual strengthening of its role over time without a need to change the charter, a wise solution adopted at the insistence of Indonesia, the country that championed the human rights cause most consistently.

  1. The establishment of the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) in 2010 and the ASEAN Committee to Implement the Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers in 2007

The Working Group had been meeting with ASEAN, through the ASEAN Foreign Ministries, since 1996. Aside from meeting with ASEAN, the Working Group started co-organizing Workshops on the ASEAN Regional Human Rights Mechanism involving participants representing ASEAN Member States, National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs), the academe and some NGOs. The conclusions and recommendations of the workshops were then formally submitted by the Working Group to ASEAN for its consideration.

Through these workshops, ASEAN had been able to discuss human rights issues at a regional level, though in an informal setting. Some of the issues tackled included women, children and migrant workers’ rights, as well as human rights education. The workshops have harvested concrete proposals on progressing towards the establishment of an ASEAN regional mechanism on human rights. In fact, the terms such as “establishment of an ASEAN commission on the promotion and protection of the rights of women and children” and the “elaboration of an ASEAN instrument on the protection and promotion of the rights of migrant workers” were culled verbatim from these workshops.

  1. The adoption of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD) in 2012

It is Southeast Asia’s first regional instrument on human rights norms and principles. Although the ASEAN Declaration is not formally binding, it is considered the framework for human rights cooperation in ASEAN and member states agreed to follow its provisions.

While the AHRD is not perfect, the Working Group already contributed to the inclusion of several important clauses and raised the standard of the declaration.

  1. Strengthening Human Rights Institutions across ASEAN

The working group members are high-profile and deeply respected individuals. To give an example, Prof. Vitit Muntarbhorn has served for several UN bodies including two-time special rapporteurs and currently first UN Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI). Dr. Marzuki Darusman, currently the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, was a Chair of the Indonesian National Human Rights Commission as well as Attorney General. Dato’ Param Cumaraswamy was the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers.

Because of their knowledge, experience and stature, they are often invited to train human rights bodies in ASEAN countries and ASEAN bodies themselves. For example, in 2014 they were invited to train the staff of the newly established Myanmar National Human Rights Commission and their commissioners.

ASEAN itself has a few groups that are focused on progressing human rights for the region. It’s important that these groups are supported so that human rights issues are addressed effectively and that public policy also includes human rights considerations. While the subject may continue to be challenging for policy makers in some countries to take onboard given that the region still struggles with some poverty and other social/economic issues, groups like the Working Group help ensure that the human rights agenda is given due representation.