We, as current and former elected representatives in ASEAN member states would like to convey our input to the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat, contributing our suggestions for agenda setting for 2015 and warning of the dangers of overlooking the importance of ensuring the growth of a genuine regional human rights mechanism.
The ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat is taking place in Sabah, Malaysia, 27-28 January 2015.
Firstly, we wish to call to attention the need for immediate and urgent action on one of the gravest human rights concerns facing our region and the world today: the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar which is becoming a strain and a stain on the entire region.
We would also seek to draw your attention to the dangers facing human rights defenders and civil society actors all across Southeast Asia, highlighted by the enforced disappearance of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone in December 2012, and the subsequent failure of the Lao PDR to properly investigate it, as well as the serious regional implications of ASEAN’s failure to stand up to the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Thailand and subsequent assault on human rights by the military regime there. At minimum, these issues, and potential solutions to them, should be discussed during the ASEAN Foreign Minister’s Retreat in Sabah.
APHR also calls upon the Foreign Ministers to support UN Resolution 69/248 calling for Myanmar to grant full citizenship rights to the Rohingya and end the persecution and human rights violations that are prompting tens of thousands to flee, placing other ASEAN member states, including Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, in a difficult and burdensome position.
Furthermore, APHR believes the military assault on democracy and human rights in Thailand poses a threat to democracy and stability of the entire region. APHR calls on ASEAN to take a stand against the military coup of May 2014 and call for free and fair elections. ASEAN must also take a stand against the human rights abuses being perpetrated under the current military regime in Thailand, including the use of military courts to try civilians, imposition of nationwide martial law and widespread restrictions of freedom of expression and assembly.
Human rights as a central pillar of ASEAN and the urgent need to strengthen AICHR
APHR acknowledges that regional commerce and trade remain driving factors behind the ASEAN mission, but also wish to impress upon you, as Foreign Ministers, the very real threats we are facing to this union all across the region and the crucial importance of human rights protections as a pillar of the post-2015 ASEAN Community. Human rights are consistently paid lip service to within our regional grouping, but are almost entirely omitted from genuine action or taken into account in key decision-making. In this important year, we call upon the governments of ASEAN to take even just a few, early steps towards changing this for the better and increasing the chances of political, economic and social stability in the years ahead.
These steps should include passing of the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers before the end of the year, particularly in light of Malaysia identifying trans-boundary crimes as a priority of its Chairmanship of ASEAN in 2015. The Migrant Workers Declaration has been pending for the last 10 years and ASEAN has a responsibility to conclude it.
We also call on our governments to explain in real terms what they mean by the notion of a ‘People Centered ASEAN’. Our governments are focusing on economic integration, but where is the peoples’ component in the plan? Just repeating the word “people” over and over again will not make it so.
Without the fundamental aspects of a genuine, people-centred community, with strong institutions, access to justice, rights and growth of common values, the ASEAN Community project risks provoking increased conflict, economic disparity and tensions in the region, to the point that it threatens the very grouping itself.
As such, we the undersigned call upon you to act on the urgent need to strengthen human rights protections in our individual member states as well as regionally, namely through empowering and improving the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), which has so far failed to meet the needs of those whose rights have been violated and continue to be violated.
Enacting the necessary measures to enhance the monitoring and protection mandate of AICHR should be viewed as complimentary to efforts to ensure the successful incorporation of the ASEAN Economic Community, not as something contradictory.
A first step towards this should be through strengthening the mandate of AICHR and ensuring its independence. APHR therefore calls upon the Foreign Ministers to take serious consideration of the below suggestions to ensure a uniform approach to the selection procedures for AICHR representatives across all member states: such a selection process must be inclusive and open, allowing for individuals to be appointed who are totally independent of government and have the expertise and dedication to carry out the role.
As Parliamentarians, we have listened to the calls from our constituents and representatives of civil society and, in voicing their concerns and requests, urge you as foreign ministers to put previous positive words into genuine action and consider taking these small steps towards empowering AICHR as suggested below:
1. Use the ToR review of AICHR to strengthen it, including its mandate and independence through:
1.1. AICHR should put in place an emergency protection mechanism for human rights, such as a precautionary measures mechanism.
1.2. AICHR should institutionalize a mechanism by which citizens have direct communication with the system, such as appointment of special rapporteurs/independent experts that can function as the eyes and ears of the regional human rights machinery and in the detection of early warning signs of potential abuses and rights violations.
1.3. AICHR should have a mandate to reduce the risk of human rights abuses, denounce human rights violation and seek States’ accountability on their human rights obligations.
1.4. AICHR and it representatives should be entirely independent of political or governmental control and influence, right through from the process of the selection and appointment of country Representatives to the exercising of its collective mandate to protect human rights.
2. Take unified action that will pressure Naypyitaw to uphold UN Resolution 69/248 calling for Myanmar to grant full citizenship rights to the Rohingya and end the persecution and human rights violations that are prompting tens of thousands to flee, placing other ASEAN member states, including Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, in a difficult and burdensome position.
3. Take a stand against the Thai Military’s seizure of power and overthrow of an elected ASEAN government in May 2014, calling for an immediate end to human rights abuses and free and fair elections.
4. Call on the Lao PDR to allow for international and regional assistance in solving the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone.
5. Conclude the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers.
While appreciating that human rights in now institutionalized in ASEAN with the establishment of AICHR in 2009, we, as elected parliamentarians, believe that human rights only have meaning if people are able to exercise them. We recognize the contribution that AICHR has made to the regional debate on human rights and its importance, and recognize the tireless of work of some of the AICHR representatives over this time. However, we also would like to state our disappointment with the approach to the position of some of the AICHR representatives over this same period: some appear to have seen their role as primarily that of defending and deflecting possible human rights concerns away from their member country, rather than that of upholding and furthering the protection of human rights across the region, irrespective of where violations take place and who the victims or perpetrators are.
We are extremely concerned that it is becoming more and more difficult and dangerous for our constituents to perform their work in defending the human rights of fellow citizens in the ASEAN region. Many human rights defenders risk their lives to battle against injustices, often committed by officers of the state, as well as representatives of private companies and non-state armed groups among others. This situation is worsened with the lack of sufficient human rights protection in some ASEAN countries, and to date AICHR has not offered any further protection at the regional level for these human rights defenders and victims of human rights violations.
We are deeply concerned that AICHR has failed to establish or outline possible means to improve human rights protections for the people in ASEAN over the last five years. The lack of redress for victims of human rights violations at the national and regional levels is both symptomatic of and a contributing factor to the widespread problem of impunity in ASEAN: without addressing these fundamental concerns for regional respect for and protection of human rights, the process of building an ASEAN Community is rendered more or less meaningless.
We appreciate your time and consideration and extend an open invitation to discuss these and other matters further.
Charles Santiago MP
President, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights