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Regional Rights Groups Disappointed in Asean Commission

Cambodia joined ASEAN in April 30th, 1999.
Cambodia joined ASEAN in April 30th, 1999.

Civil society leaders from six Asean countries say they are disappointed in a new commission meant to monitor human rights in the 10-member bloc.

In a forum to discuss the newly established Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, or AICHR, in Washington, various groups said the body could do more to ensure the mitigation of rights abuses in member countries.

“We are very disappointed that for the whole year the commission has not been engaging civil society organizations as well as national human rights institutions in the region,” said panelist Yap Swee Seng, who is the executive director of the Thai-based Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development.

Human rights abuses remain a problem across Southeast Asia, particularly Burma. The AICHR was meant to be a major step toward strengthening rights in member countries. However, activists at the forum said by not allowing civil society to engage, the commission could not address abuses.

Irene Fonacier-Fellizar, a child rights activist for Solidarity for Asian People's Task Force, based in the Philippines, said the AICHR faced a “daunting task” in engaging with rights groups and protecting children. That's because the gulf between civic groups and governments in the region remains wide, she said.

Some were upset by the lack of provisions within Asean and its commission on key rights freedoms.

“Free expression remains a dirty word, press freedom remains a dirty word, access to information remains a dirty word,” said Roby Alampay, the editor of an online portal for TV5 in the Philippines. “And you will literally not see any of these, either in the charter of Asean or in terms of reference of Asean's Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.”

The forum did provide an opportunity for different groups to come together from across the region to share their areas of expertise, said Andy Lim, a student at American University, where the event was held.

“They have the best experience and the best knowledge available to us,” he said. “Some of the knowledge I have about Asean comes especially from Western experts, people we know, and professors we have. Today we have points of view of the people from the region.”