Doubts about ASEAN's human rights body

By Chak Sopheap

Published on UPI online, December 02, 2009

Niigata, Japan ? This year?s theme for Human Rights Day on Dec. 10 is ?non-discrimination,? based on the concept that all human beings are born free and are equal in dignity and rights. However, much needs to be done before this concept will be a reality in many nations. Though many countries have endorsed the United Nations? Universal Declaration of Human Rights, initiated 60 years ago, challenges still persist in implementing it.

On Oct. 24, ASEAN inaugurated its Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights in Bangkok, Thailand. But there are many concerns as to whether this commission will be more than just a propaganda organization, given that many of its member states have very poor human rights records.

Current human rights violations within ASEAN member states range from intimidation to the killing of journalists and political and social activists who advocate the public interest and the rule of law. The recent political massacre in Maguindanao in the Philippines, where 57 people were killed including nonpolitical civilians and journalists, is proof that politically motivated intimidation still commonly practiced in that country.

Military-ruled Myanmar refuses to release political prisoners including the leader of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been kept under house arrest for over 14 years, despite domestic and international appeals.

In Cambodia there are many reports of arrests, coercive force and intimidation of journalists, political activists and community rights defenders that protest against land grabbing, forced evictions, border issues and government corruption.

In Thailand there are restrictions on the freedom of press and speech; the alleged killings of Cambodians who illegally cross the border to work in the forests of Thailand; the abuse of refugees from Myanmar who are turned back to the sea and left to perish without food and water.

Given the lack of human rights protections in these member countries, ASEAN?s ability to create an effective, rule-based institution to protect human rights is questionable. Only four member states ? Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines ? have independent human rights commissions, none of which is very effective.

Cambodia needs an independent National Human Rights Commission. Although there are three existing human rights commissions in Cambodia ? under the National Assembly, the Senate and the government ? none is independent and capable of subscribing to the Paris Principles established in 1991 by the U.N. Human Rights Commission as the standard for national human rights bodies.

Many rights violations continue to occur, yet the so-called human rights commissions have not intervened or taken measures to address them. Only a transparent and truly independent institution can robustly support and defend human rights in Cambodia.

In Europe, victims of human rights abuses can complain to the Human Rights Court in Strasbourg, France. However, Cambodians have no place to voice their complaints if powerful officials abuse them. On many occasions they protest in front of the National Assembly but are turned back by riot police and their complaints are ignored.

However, Prime Minister Hun Sen has made a commitment to make Cambodia the fifth ASEAN nation to have a national human rights council. Such a council should be authorized to hear complaints from all bodies and given the power to mediate between parties. It must have the ability to advise parties of their rights, and make binding legal decisions. These may subsequently result in making recommendations to the authorities.

The commission must be able to operate independently, with its own budget and offices, separate from those of the government.

It is hoped that the advent of Human Rights Day, which is generally marked by the government and civil society, will raise awareness of rights violations and the need for a body to address this problem.

(Chak Sopheap is a graduate student of peace studies at the International University of Japan. She runs a blog, www.sopheapfocus.com, in which she shares her impressions of both Japan and her homeland, Cambodia. She was previously advocacy officer of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.)

4 thoughts on “Doubts about ASEAN's human rights body

  1. With respect to the human rights violations amongst ASEAN member countries, In Malaysia, there are many Indonesian migrants, mostly working as domestic workers and plantation laborers, whose basic human rights have been abused repeatedly and atrociously, fearing the job loss and death thread from the employer.
    Such cases happen so often. The Indonesia-Malaysia 2006 MoU is not strong enough protect those vulnerable migrants from inhumanity ill-treatment. Not only does human rights violation happen outside Indonesia but it do exist within a country itself also.

    In Cambodia context, human rights violation befall civil persons, political activists, journalists and human right advocates. Freedom of expression, association and assembly,judicial independence, impunity, prison and arbitrary detention, forced eviction and land grabbing are commonly questionable.
    Let’s have a look at one of ASEAN member states-Vietnam, the condition of human rights violation on Khmer Krom peoples, Montagnards, the Hmongs, the other ethnic minority groups and other people has been somewhat severe. Those peoples cannot enjoy their religious practices, believe and cultural life. Education has been restricted. They live out of fear, oppression.

    As you mentioned, Cambodia needs the independent National Human Rights Commission which is non-politicized, adherent to laws and principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ensuring that the basic human rights is protected and guaranteed and the freedom of speech and expression is secured.
    With the same interest, each ASEAN member state shall start from her own home strengthening national law practices, constructing a truly independent rather than lip service Human Rights Commission so that the people of her country can enjoy their rights. When the human rights related issues have been minimized and solved in every ASEAN member countries, the trans-human rights matter will be easy to solved as the main purpose of ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights made.

    Thank you.

  2. Special thanks to Pheap for your provocative thoughts on this sensitive topic. Hopefully, this article will serve as a wake-up call for all Asean leaders to full-heartedly seek better ways to bring about necessary changes to the betterment of people?s god-given rights. Below is some sort of my impression on the practicality of the human rights body.

    Human Rights Council: Promise of Betterment or Merely Formality?
    The degree of violation of people?s rights in various aspects ranging from very basic rights to life through the rights to free expression is getting downturn.
    The advancement of and the greater availability of modern technology, specifically the widespread of mass media, have made the stories on intimidation of human lives more globally heard and seen and felt, yet nothing much has been done to stop the situation from getting worse both at regional level and at international level.

    There is little hope that even the establishment of human rights bodies in every Asean nation, it still is more unlikely that these bodies will effectively function to properly correct the status quo. Cambodia has no difference. While the recent commitments announced by the government to establish such a body demonstrate some concern with the deterioration of human rights, this enthusiasm will rarely extend beyond what I would call a merely ?formality?. In spite of the leader? assertion, there is little doubt that foremost in his mind when he merely half-heartedly committed to establish the so-called human rights council is Cambodia?s international prestige, his desire for national adoration and his uncontested legitimacy as the leader of Cambodia.

    The would-be Cambodia human rights body, above which the indomitable presence of its leader whose impact is immeasurable, will do Cambodia and its people no more than an empty promise if the leader?s political wills are beyond the quest for personal desires for political empowerment.

    Warm regards,
    cheng

  3. Special thanks to Pheap for your provocative thoughts on this sensitive topic. Hopefully, your article will serve as a wake-up call for all Asean leaders to full-heartedly seek better ways to bring about necessary changes to the betterment of people?s god-given rights. Below is some sort of my impression on the practicality of the human rights body.

    Human Rights Council: Promise of Betterment or Merely Formality?
    The degree of violation of people?s rights in various aspects ranging from very basic rights to life through the rights to free expression is getting downturn.
    The advancement of and the greater availability of modern technology, specifically the widespread of mass media, have made the stories on intimidation of human lives more globally heard and seen and felt, yet nothing much has been done to stop the situation from getting worse both at regional level and at international level.

    There is little hope that even the establishment of human rights bodies in every Asean nation, it still is more unlikely that these bodies will effectively function to properly correct the status quo. Cambodia has no difference. While the recent commitments announced by the government to establish such a body demonstrate some concern with the deterioration of human rights, this enthusiasm will rarely extend beyond what I would call a merely ?formality?. In spite of the leader? assertion, there is little doubt that foremost in his mind when he merely half-heartedly committed to establish the so-called human rights council is Cambodia?s international prestige, his desire for national adoration and his uncontested legitimacy as the leader of Cambodia.

    The would-be Cambodia human rights body, above which the indomitable presence of its leader whose impact is immeasurable, will do Cambodia and its people no more than an empty promise if the leader?s political wills are beyond the quest for personal desires for political empowerment.

    Warm regards,
    cheng

  4. Fortunately for Europe, humain rights have solid historical back-spine, thnks to the French R?volution. Nevertheless don’t think all is perfect here. Of course, the situation is far better than in asia but humain rights are flout everyday in Europe.
    The asean have been created mostly for economical purpose, so the humain rights stuff is just there to avoid complications with western countries.

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