Inauguration Picture
Ceremony to Inaugurate ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, Photo By Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kingdom of Thailand

Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) officially launched the new ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) on October 23, 2009. The AICHR is a consultative body, comprised of one government-appointed representative from each of the 10 ASEAN Member States. Unlike other regional human rights bodies, AICHR currently performs no investigative or judicial functions. Although this body has already faced considerable criticism, little attention has been paid to the ways in which the AICHR could be effective in the short-term, including the kind of progress practical at this point.

Article 4.2 of the Terms of Reference, the official governing document of the AICHR, lists as one of its mandates and primary functions “[t]o develop an ASEAN Human Rights Declaration with a view to establishing a framework for human rights cooperation . . . .” Before the AICHR can develop a substantive framework, however, ASEAN Member States must first agree on what “human rights” are, what standards they will use to measure progress, and what, if any, the consequences would be for non-compliance.

Currently, there is a significant split among ASEAN Member States in recognizing international human rights norms as expressed through the ratification of international conventions and treaties. Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia have signed and ratified almost all major international human rights conventions. By contrast, Malaysia, Burma, Singapore, and Brunei have each ratified only the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

Given this sharp divide, a realistic starting point for the AICHR in drafting a Human Rights Declaration might be rights similar to those expressed in CEDAW and CRC, since every ASEAN Member State has generally accepted the principles embodied in these conventions. Agreement on issues such as gender equality and the rights of children may help to create a foundation for a broader Human Rights Declaration. Moreover, the process of discussing and drafting an agreement on these issues may facilitate improved cooperation among Member States, easing the transition to debating more contentious issues.

Achieving the stated purposes of AICHR, including the promotion and protection of human rights in the region, will inevitably come slowly. The region’s history of human rights abuses and firm commitment to national sovereignty create significant hurdles that must first be cleared. At least some ASEAN Member States, nevertheless, seem open to genuine dialogue and compromise. The Philippines, for example, has been pushing for the creation of the AICHR for several years. Additionally, Indonesia appointed as its representative Rafendi Djamin, a veteran human rights activist.

Despite early criticism, many human rights advocates in the region are reserving judgment until they see what the AICHR can accomplish. Anna Samson, National Legal, Communications and Advocacy Officer for the Jesuit Refugee Service in Thailand, told the Human Rights Brief that the formation of the AICHR is a “step forward as it creates an avenue for dialogue in the region.” Even so, Samson and other members of civil society throughout the region are cautiously waiting to see how the AICHR can “operationalize human rights” in Southeast Asia.