(Bangkok Post) - The Asean (the Association of South East Asian Nations) charter signed at the group's summit in the past week boldly declared the pursuance of human rights in the region as a core value, but unfortunately the signs coming out of the 41st Asean Ministerial Meeting (AMM) in Singapore are that when the Asean human rights organisation does finally comes on line it might be toothless.
An Asean human rights body is a long time coming. At the 26th AMM, also held in Singapore, all foreign ministers agreed that Asean should coordinate a common approach on human rights and actively contribute to the application, promotion and protection of such rights. It furthermore agreed that Asean should consider the establishment of an appropriate regional mechanism on human rights. At the 41st AMM, the membership of a High Level Panel (HLP) was established to draft the terms of reference (TOR) for a human rights body was formalised. The panel is to present its work at the 14th Asean summit in December 2008 in Bangkok.
But reports from Singapore indicate that some countries within the 10-member regional grouping - Burma in particular - are already putting severe limits on the functionality of any Asean human rights organisation. According to an anonymous diplomatic source, on Tuesday the HLP met with foreign ministers in a closed-door session in which Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win told the panel it should uphold the Asean tradition of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states and reject a monitoring capacity for the human rights body.
If agreed to, this provision would effectively prohibit a proper investigation of human rights abuses. It has already been tacitly agreed that the human rights body will not have the power to impose sanctions on any member state or seek prosecution for alleged offenders. The lack of a monitoring capacity would make it easy for governments to deny access to alleged victims.
If Burma s wishes are honoured by the panel - and to be sure, Burma is not alone in its position - what exactly will the human rights body be able to accomplish? It seems that the most we could hope for is issuing statements, with some authority, based on reports compiled by journalists and NGOs.
To its credit, Thailand has for some time taken the high ground on the formation of a human rights body, along with Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia, and lobbied for greater empowerment. However, this movement has been led by segments of governmental and civil society which are naturally predisposed to human rights advocacy.
It is uncertain how the influence of sitting politicians in these countries will shape the final draft of the TOR, but it seems likely they will be more than happy to limit the scope of the human rights body and let the blame fall on Burma.
In fairness, although it is true that Asean is the world's only major regional grouping without a formal human rights mechanism, the sacrifice of human rights to political expediency is hardly unique to this region.
The same criticism was leveled at the United Nations Human Rights Committee, whose membership and even leadership at times included states with appalling human rights records.
The remodeled UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), established in March 2006, is an improved, but still very flawed mechanism.
Yet the UNHRC does have the power to act if it chooses to, as it has on Darfur in heping to prepare a case for the International Criminal Court, over the objections of powerful member-state China. The coming Asean human rights body is in danger of having weakness written into it before it ever becomes a reality.