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As the target date for launching the ASEAN human rights body (AHRB)
nears, civil society groups have warned depriving it of watchdog
powers would erode the credibility of the regional organization.

The warning came amid concerns over Burma's (Myanmar's) renewed
crackdown on democracy fighter Aung San Suu Kyi and Thailand's
refusal to accept thousands of Burmese refugees fleeing from
military rule.

About 200 civil society groups and individuals have endorsed a
letter urging the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to
give the AHRB the power to investigate complaints of abuses,
conduct country visits and review the human rights situation in the

The letter, addressed to a panel drafting the AHRB's terms of
reference (TOR), also calls for the appointment of independent
experts to the body.

The terms of reference, which detail the AHRB's powers and duties,
are expected to be adopted in July at the 42nd ASEAN Ministerial
Meeting. The AHRB itself is to be formally launched in October.

The draft TOR has not been made public but journalists who have
seen it say that while it focuses on promoting human rights, it
gives no power to the AHRB to investigate and prosecute.

The TOR is expected to maintain ASEAN's adherence to its
noninterference policy, which some members have invoked to ward off
criticisms of their rights records.

The civil society groups warned that a human rights body with no
protection powers or independent experts would not fulfill its
pledge to respect fundamental freedoms, protect human rights, and
promote social justice.

"This would reflect badly on ASEAN as being unable to live up to
the spirit of its own Charter and further dent the credibility of
ASEAN in the eyes of the international community for setting up a
substandard regional human rights mechanism as compared to those in
the African, Inter-American and European systems," the June 22
letter said.

The letter was cosigned by the Solidarity for Asian People's
Advocacy Task Force on ASEAN and Human Rights and the Asian Forum
for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia).

Indonesia's example

Forum-Asia underscored the importance of having competent experts
in the AHRB, saying they could make the body relevant to
beleaguered peoples.

They could also help the AHRB initiate actions to reduce human
rights problems even with a limited mandate, Forum-Asia's Yuyun
Wahyuningrum, program manager for East Asia, told the Inquirer.

Wahyuningrum said it was vital that the people manning the AHRB
would not be afraid to contradict the government line, if necessary.

She said this was the case with Indonesia's National Human Rights
Commission which, although created by then President Suharto, did
not become a government mouthpiece but criticized abuses and tried
to curb them.

First time

Former ASEAN Secretary General Rodolfo Severino of the Philippines
said the establishment of the body was a step forward.

"For the first time, ASEAN will have a body concerned with human
rights. This is an advance. It certainly will not have powers of
'enforcement' in an association of sovereign states, but it can
bring opinion to bear on egregious violations of human rights,"
Severino said in an email interview.

He pointed out there was no transnational human rights body
anywhere with the power to punish or protect.

Dr. Termsak Chalermpalanupap, ASEAN's director of Political and
Security Directorate, said in an article the AHRB mandate includes
protection and promotion of human rights but would focus on
protection first.

He said its functions could evolve over time and the body "is
merely the new beginning."

No biting

Responding to claims that the AHRB would be toothless,
Chalermpalanupap said the body was not intended to have teeth or to
function as an independent watchdog.

"The AHRB shall operate through consultation and consensus, with
firm respect for sovereign equality of all Member States. Good
points can be made and constructive actions can be agreed upon in
friendly discussion and persuasion. No 'biting' is ever required,"
Chalermpalanupap said.

As for concerns that the noninterference principle would hamper
AHRB's functions, he said the ASEAN charter also speaks of
collective responsibility in enhancing peace, security and
prosperity in the region, and of enhanced consultation on common

Wahyuningrum said noninterference could not be invoked when it came
to crimes against humanity, genocide and humanitarian cases.

She said ASEAN members were signatories to the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, and in signing such conventions, they
gave up part of their sovereignty.

(Note: This article was written under the 2009 Southeast Asian
Press Alliance Fellowship Grant)

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