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Advocates Divided on Worth of Asean Commission

Kek Galabru, founder of the rights group Licadho.
Kek Galabru, founder of the rights group Licadho.

After years of effort by civil society, the establishment of the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights was seen as a milestone. However, activists and critics now say they have concerns the body, which was formed in October 2009, might not live up to its goals, and they are divided on it current value.

Human rights violations remain a problem in Cambodia and other parts of Southeast Asia, particularly Burma. The Asean rights commission was supposed to be a major step toward strengthening rights in these countries. But at least four prominent activists interviewed by VOA Khmer agree that the main obstacle for an effective commission will be its lack of protection mechanisms and independence.

“I haven’t seen this commission doing any investigation at all,” said Kek Galabru, founder of the rights group Licadho.

Unlike human rights commissions of other regions, the Asean body has been active only in human rights promotion—through teaching, dissemination, and research—but it lacks protection measures, she said.

“Because in the Asean way of doing things, a consensus must be reached and countries cannot interfere with each other’s internal affairs,” she said. “This is what I believe is a major obstacle.”

The commission’s own literature says it should “promote and protect human rights” within Asean, via 10 representatives from member nations “accountable” to their own governments. But at the same time, representatives can be replaced at will, raising concerns the body is vulnerable to political interference by its own member states.

The chair of the commission is currently Vietnam, for example, a country that itself is often criticized for rights abuses and restrictions of freedoms.

“These kinds of commissions can be created for window dressing and actually succeed in creating cynicism among a lot of people about whether or not human rights in worth pursuing,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Right Watch.

“I perfectly well understand that it will take time in the best of cases to create a successful mechanism, but I don’t think that Asean is serious,” he said. “They are just a bunch of dictators running various countries, and people who would be dictators…just don’t have any interest in allowing anything out of their control. Even a country like Singapore, which is very liberal economically, is very controlled politically. So it has very serious limits, and I don’t have particular high hopes for this.”

Asean officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

Despite these apparent shortcomings, Ou Virak of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said that having a commission is better than nothing, noting that the ambiguity of the commission’s founding document could work in favor of civil society advocates.

“I think that it is good to have the commission, because it is a political institution,” he said. “The agreement that created this commission is a political document, meaning that it evolves according to the trends of Asean politics. This means that if Asean becomes more open to human rights, the agreement can be interpreted in a broader way. The role of the commission can thus be made more effective.”

Activists disagree on the extent to which civil society can play a role in helping shape the commission’s long-term effectiveness.

Adams said he doubted the commission will do any good for Cambodia’s civil society, noting that groups and activists here already have strong support.

“It will be more helpful to other countries,” he said. “Cambodia does have a very vigorous civil society. It was opened up by the Untac process, and it’s been sustained by…the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights office, by donors, diplomats, and most of all by the courage and tenacity of Cambodian groups themselves. And I wouldn’t expect them to get anything from the Asean process what they can get already.”

Ou Virak acknowledged that the lack of real power would hurt the Asean rights commission’s overall effectiveness, but he also said civil society can push for a greater role in the future. The association is an evolving institution, he said, and it can make inquiries that help reveal human rights deficiencies and create political pressure on governments.

The CCHR plans to work with other NGOs to file a joint complaint about Cambodia’s human rights violations to the commission, after similar proceedings were pioneered by rights groups in the Philippines earlier this year.

Thun Saray, president of the rights group Adhco, said his group is also hoping to file complaints with the commission, especially concerning the alleged shootings of Cambodian civilians by Thai soldiers along the border, should such violations continue.

The Asean commission will hold two meetings this year and has reviews every five years. The next review is in October 2014, and until that time rights groups say they have little hope in shaping its structure and workings.

The next five years are likely to see little progress in the commission’s work, Thun Saray said. Still, he said, in the long run, progress in other regions, like Africa and the Americas, where there are human rights courts, could help build momentum for Southeast Asia.

Meanwhile, Kek Galabru suggested patience, especially with a commission that is just beginning. The ultimate test will be its ability to bring justice to victims of rights abuse, she said.

“I think that it is most important for a human rights institution to have power to investigate, make findings, and then to deliver justice to the victims,” she said. “Only after it has fulfilled this role is it of any use.”