Subject: Rights Activists Barred from Talks with ASEAN Leaders [+2 JP
also: 2 JP reports: ASEAN makes rights body toothless; and Op-Ed: ASEAN Relevancy Questioned [by Pokpong Lawansiri, Bangkok-based independent scholar and an analyst on ASEAN.]
Rights Activists Barred from Talks with ASEAN Leaders
HUA HIN, Thailand, Feb. 28 (AFP) - Southeast Asian leaders were embroiled in a fresh row over human rights on Saturday after Myanmar's junta and Cambodia blocked activists from attending rare face-to-face talks.
The spat erupted at the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in the Thai beach resort of Hua Hin a day after ministers from the 10-member bloc discussed setting up a controversial rights body.
Human rights have been a perennial challenge for the grouping over its 42-year history. The bloc has repeatedly failed to press military-ruled Myanmar to introduce reforms and free political prisoners.
ASEAN leaders were due to hold talks with 10 civil society representatives on Saturday, but Myanmar premier Thein Sein and his Cambodian counterpart Hun Sen refused to take part if activists from their own countries were present.
"We heard that they were not happy with the possible attendance of these two activists and they threatened to not be present in today's meeting if the two attended," Yap Swee Seng, head of the Asia Forum for Human Rights and Development, told AFP.
"We are really disappointed and regret such a decision taken by the two countries, because we are of the view that dialogue will help understanding between the two sides and forge cooperation to resolve issues together."
The barred activists were Khin Omar, a democracy campaigner and women's rights activist from Myanmar, and Pen Somony, a volunteer coordinator from Cambodia.
"This shows that the Burmese junta has no commitment to the charter that it has ratified," Khin Omar said, referring to Myanmar by its former name.
A landmark charter setting ASEAN on the road to becoming an EU-style community by 2015 and calling for the establishment of the human rights body came into force in December.
"It is also very worrying for ASEAN as it moves towards forming a human rights body. So now it is up to ASEAN leaders to find a way to hold the Burmese regime accountable," Khin Omar told AFP.
She said that there would now be a 20-minute session of talks from which she and Pen Somony would be excluded and then a 10-minute session in which Thailand's premier and foreign minister would meet them outside.
ASEAN, a 10-member bloc which includes Myanmar and two communist states, has repeatedly been pressed to use its influence to improve the rights situation in Myanmar but to little avail.
A key problem has been the group's underlying policy of non-interference in domestic affairs, which has previously been used by nations like Myanmar to fend off criticism.
The policy has most recently been enshrined in a draft document seen by AFP on the proposed rights body, which will apparently lack investigative and prosecution powers.
The draft is also packed with provisions rejecting external interference and stressing the region's cultural diversity.
"I understand it is indeed toothless," said Debbie Stothard, coordinator of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, a non-governmental organisation. Several activists from her organisation held a brief demonstration in central Hua Hin earlier Saturday.
The rights issue has dominated previous ASEAN summits but despite Saturday's row it is unlikely to shift the main focus of this year's meeting from efforts to shield the group from the global financial crisis.
ASEAN's export-driven economies have begun to feel the effects of the crunch, with Singapore facing its worst recession since independence and Thailand also facing difficulties.
The group with a combined population of nearly 600 million people signed a massive free trade deal with Australia and New Zealand on Friday.
ASEAN heads of state and government were due to open their formal summit later Saturday.
The Jakarta Post February 28, 2009
ASEAN makes rights body toothless
by Lilian Budianto
Cha-Am, Thailand ,
The power of the ASEAN human rights body has been watered down to a "consultative level" forum for the bloc's members, who have different political systems, after negotiators agreed to take into account each member's legal readiness. | Sat, 02/28/2009 2:23 PM | Headlines
The high level panel for the rights body submitted the first draft of its terms of reference to the bloc's foreign ministers Friday during the 14th ASEAN Summit in Cha-am, Thailand. The body is set to operate soon this year after the panel of representatives of the 10 member states submitted its final draft in July.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda said Friday there should be more provisions to protect human rights in the reference, adding the body should have "monitoring, dissemination and education, and advisory services functions".
Hassan said monitoring, which meant there was a reporting mechanism for rights protection in all member states, would contribute to the progress of enforcement of human rights in the region with different levels of democracy.
"There has been some issue when we come to the *provision on* protection. Countries may feel reluctant as they do not want to interfere in domestic affairs. The point is there should be a shift in the way we perceive the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs. Gross violations of human rights are not a domestic problem," he said.
Rafendi Djamin, an Indonesian representative of the panel, said although the body might look limited in its power, there was "space" to encourage the protection of human rights among the member countries with different levels of democracy.
"This body explicitly says there is going to be a dialogue process between the human rights commission and civil society. When it comes to dialogue, you can bring the victims of human rights abuses to talk at the body. Exposure is protection. The governments would feel the pressure once they learn that victims have established contact with the human rights body," he said.
Rafendi, coordinator for the Indonesian NGO Coalition for International Human Rights Advocacy Group, added that each member state would have to appoint a commissioner to the body, who could come from a government office or a representative from civil society.
"The commissioners have the right to ask governments about allegations of human rights abuse, whether it is an individual case or a trend in the member state," he said, adding that governments would also be obliged to report on the enforcement of human rights to the body.
ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said the scope of power of the human rights body could always evolve, adding the "members should not be too ambitious" for the time being.
"The draft body has been deliberating the issues on how to promote and how to protect human rights. Would it mean the right to investigate, the right to issue judgments or ask orders for judicial review or to correct the wrong or to give advice? I think the point now is we have to begin somewhere. We can't be too ambitious. Let it evolve," Surin said in Cha-am.
Civil communities had expected the rights body would have the power to investigate and prosecute by piling pressure on iron-fisted governments, especially the military junta in Myanmar.
ASEAN consists of 10 countries, ranging from military-ruled Myanmar, socialist Vietnam and Laos, to democratic Indonesia, the Philippines and Cambodia.
Djauhari Oratmangun, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry's director general of ASEAN affairs, said because the terms of reference of the rights body would still be developed until it was finalized in July, Jakarta would look into the possibility of having all member states take into account what the human rights commission in Indonesia had achieved.
"The development of the rights body in the future could also refer to the existing rights commissions, especially the one in Indonesia, which has the power to investigate cases and summon people *to be questioned*," he said.
The Jakarta Post February 28, 2009
ASEAN Relevancy Questioned
by Pokpong Lawansiri
Finally, the Thai government under the leadership of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajiva is able to hold the 14th ASEAN Summit after it was postponed in December 2008 after the seizure of the airport by the People's Alliance for Democratic (PAD).
There was earlier speculation that a re-scheduled summit would face great difficulties after attempts by the anti-government United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship had petitioned Burma and Singapore to boycott the summit claiming that the government is undemocratic.
As ASEAN will celebrate its 42nd birthday this year, established on 8 August, 1967, a lot of ASEAN observers are wondering if the organization is truly relevant to the ASEAN population.
During the period of the adoption and ratification of the ASEAN Charter in 2007-2008, many ASEAN governments, including Thailand, insisted the ASEAN Charter will make the body a more "people-oriented" organization. The actual text of the charter, however, does not detail how the people can be involved in ASEAN decision-making processes.
The Jakarta-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies and Indonesian lawmakers had spoken in favor of the non-ratification of the charter, seeing no benefit in the charter.
ASEAN's relevancy has been questioned in many instances.
First, ASEAN policies have proven to be mostly rhetoric rather than actual implementation. The 1997 document, ASEAN Vision 2020, talks about ASEAN's aim "to build a community of caring and sharing societies".
However, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajiva, as the current chair of ASEAN, reiterates the quote on one hand, and at another continues to label the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar as illegal migrants who should be detained and "pushed-out" from the country.
This totally contradicts the essence of "caring and sharing communities". It has been noted that less than 50 percent of ASEAN agreements are actually implemented, while ASEAN holds more than 600 meetings annually.
Second, ASEAN members themselves do not take the organization seriously. Last year, when Thailand and Cambodia had at their most critical dispute in decades over the ownership of Preah Vihear Temple - which was stirred up by the PAD's ultra-nationalism fervor - Samdech Hun Sen, the Prime Minister of Cambodia ignored ASEAN and brought the issue directly to the UN Security Council. He surely must have been aware that there is a dispute settlement mechanism in ASEAN to which he could refer the issue.
The writer was recently told by a former senior staff member of the ASEAN Foundation, an integral body of ASEAN which is tasked to "promote greater awareness of ASEAN and interaction among the peoples of ASEAN", that the Asia-Europe Foundation has been receiving far more funding from ASEAN governments than ASEAN's own foundation. He said, "ASEAN governments want the foundation to stand on its own."
Similarly, the ASEAN People's Assembly (APA), a yearly forum that has been organized by the ASEAN think tank network, known as the ASEAN Institute for Strategic and International Studies since 2001, which attempts to bridge the gaps between the policymakers and civil society groups by bringing the two groups together to the same forum, is also facing a similar problem.
While in the ASEAN's Vientiane Action Programme adopted in 1999, it recognizes APA as an "important consultative mechanism for developing more people-oriented policies"; ASEAN is still not supporting the initiative as this mechanism is facing large financial constraints on continuing its operation.
Third, participatory democracy is a foreign term among ASEAN governments. The ASEAN Charter, which is the first document that talks about "people-oriented" ASEAN, was discussed discreetly, while there had been calls by civic groups to make it public for general discussion or to have it voted on in a referendum. Three documents accompanying the charter namely the Economic, Political-Security, and Socio-Cultural Blueprints were also discussed in private.
Last, and most importantly, civil society and ASEAN observers are viewing ASEAN as unable to meet human rights challenges. While ASEAN bureaucrats often credit ASEAN for having created peace in the region since its establishment, they forgot to acknowledge that ASEAN stood still during the genocide in Cambodia, which then was not a member of ASEAN.
Similarly, ASEAN allowed Indonesia to take extreme measures against East Timor from 1974 to 1999, when Jakarta then viewed it as a renegade province. The conflict in Cambodia and East Timor claimed approximately 2 million and 102,800 lives respectively. Not to mention that the human rights situation in Myanmar has not improved since it was admitted to ASEAN in 1997.
Although, the ASEAN Charter is coming up with the plan to establish an ASEAN human rights body (AHRB) by appointing the High Level Panel who are currently doing the drafting of the terms of reference (TOR) of the AHRB, there is very little hope for those who have been following its development.
The confidential text of the TOR highlights that the body has to respect the principle of non-interference and will work to defend ASEAN from external interferences on human rights issues. Furthermore, it is known that the body will focus on promotional roles rather than protecting human rights victims; that it will only serve as a window-dressing mechanism for ASEAN.
Feb. 20-22, 2009, close to a thousand civil society representatives will be coming together under the banner of the ASEAN Peoples' Forum to discuss issues affecting them. One question to be discussed is the relevancy of ASEAN. It is expected that they will come up with a statement to be delivered to the ASEAN leaders looking at how ASEAN can better serve them.
As ASEAN claims itself to be a "people-oriented" body, it surely must finally get it together and implement its policies and ensure that ASEAN will be able to respond to the needs of its peoples on issues such as democracy and human rights, if it wants to change its image as a relevant organization to the people it says it wants to serve.
The writer is a Bangkok-based independent scholar and an analyst on ASEAN.