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Joint Statement: ASEAN needs a stronger Human Rights Mechanism

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JAKARTA – Ten years since its establishment, AICHR has yet to fully function as a regional human rights mechanism that meets the expectations of civil society. The High Level Dialogue on Human Rights in ASEAN, organised by Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) and Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) expresses grave concern about the ineffectiveness of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) to provide protection for the human rights of the peoples in Southeast Asia.

The event calls on the AICHR and ASEAN Member States (AMS) to significantly and meaningfully improve the human rights commission in order to strengthen its protection mandate so that it can truly benefit all peoples in the region.

From 2010 to 2018, AICHR spent over six million USD conducting 121 activities approved by the AMS. Unfortunately, these activities have not resulted in any significant improvement in the human rights situation on the ground, or for the peoples of ASEAN who need its protection. Southeast Asia has faced frequent numerous human rights violations and abuses, ranging from the worst crimes against the Rohingya and other religious and ethnic minorities in Myanmar, to numerous enforced disappearances across the region, to extra-judicial killings in the Philippines, attacks on independent media, dissolution of the legal opposition, and the shrinking of civic space and freedom of expression in the region. The human rights situation in the region is deteriorating, but all the issues remain unaddressed by AICHR.

Despite having protection-related provisions in its Terms of Reference (TOR) that can be creatively utilised to meaningfully address the situation, AICHR tends to succumb to the political will of ASEAN Member States. The human rights commission chooses to hide behind the non-interference principle of ASEAN and to sideline the rule of law, democracy, and respect for fundamental freedoms. This has resulted in the grave neglect of fulfillment human rights on the ground and continually resulted in the irrelevance of AICHR and ASEAN as a whole to address people’s struggles.

It is evident that individually and collectively, the AICHR, AMS and ASEAN have failed to create or develop a viable human rights mechanism. The mechanism is considerably weaker compared to those in Africa, the Americas, and Europe, which have the power to investigate and consider complaints. States often respectfully submit their positions to these bodies, and the mechanisms take steps to prevent and stop violations, provide redress and accountability, and ensure that violations are not repeated.

As there must be transparency and accountability to the peoples, we call on the AICHR to actively and publicly respond to human rights crises, including through the creation of a robust complaint mechanism that is accessible to vulnerable individuals and groups, and the enhancement of engagement with CSOs as equal partners for the promotion and protection of human rights in the region. Further, we demand AICHR to push the agenda to revise its TOR to the AMS, particularly the ASEAN Foreign Ministers. AMS, on the other hand, need to ensure that the revision of AICHR’s TOR will include a more elaborate and detailed protection mandate, that it upholds professionalism and independence of AICHR representatives, and an innovative decision-making procedure that overrules the current non-interference and consensus building principles in the event of grave human rights violation.

Ten years of silence is enough. If the AICHR would like to be relevant to the struggle of the peoples of Southeast Asia and merit to be called a human rights commission, it needs to make major institutional changes, and take genuine steps towards the promise behind its creation.