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.)