Five Success Stories of the Working Group for ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism

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ASEAN has struggled with its own human rights issues even amidst rapid economic growth and development in the region. While the subject of human rights is viewed as a grey area in many policy debates and discussions, countries in the region have taken steps to establish human rights institutions to progress human rights for ASEAN. These institutions play an important role in not just building awareness on the importance of addressing human rights issues in ASEAN but also to implement various policies and mechanisms that lead to greater protection of human rights. The Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism is one such group that has been working to make strides in human rights protection for the region.

  1. Consistent Engagement of ASEAN with the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism

Since 1998 to 2008, the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism (Working Group) has been consistently mentioned in the Joint Communiqué’s of the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting due to its engagement with the ASEAN Senior Officials Meeting in order to discuss the establishment and development of human rights mechanisms in ASEAN. These engagements led to the organization of workshops that shaped the development of human rights goals within ASEAN as reflected later on in the Vientiane Action Programme. Subsequently, these were further institutionalized in the ASEAN Community Blueprints.

  1. Signing of a Declaration of Cooperation among the National Human Rights Institutions in ASEAN

The Working Group recognized way back in 2001 that establishing human rights mechanisms in ASEAN may take time. But in the meantime, some human rights violations happen across borders. It is for this reason that the Working Group convinced the NHRIs in ASEAN of the benefit of working together for cross-border human rights issues and provided the platform for such discussion. The existing NHRIs then (Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand) agreed to cooperate and signed a Declaration of Cooperation in Bali, Indonesia in 2007, witnessed by the Working Group Co-Chairperson at that time.

  1. ASEAN recognized the Working Group in the ASEAN Charter as an Entity Associated with ASEAN

The Working Group is the only human rights organization listed in the ASEAN Charter. The Working Group never requested for the status, but because the Working Group has been cooperating with ASEAN and supporting its human rights endeavors since 1996, ASEAN included them in the annex two of the ASEAN Charter under the ‘entities associated with ASEAN.’

The adoption of the ASEAN Charter is a huge step forward for ASEAN, transforming itself into a rules-based, legal entity. It is also clearly stated that ASEAN is governed by “the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance” and where there is “respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms”. The incorporation of a human rights body as an organ of ASEAN (Article 14, ASEAN Charter) is a breakthrough for human rights in the region.

  1. The establishment of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) in 2009

The AICHR was set up in compliance with Article 14 of the ASEAN Charter which states that ASEAN shall establish an ASEAN human rights body to promote and protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people in the region. The Working Group was instrumental in the birth of the AICHR. Indeed, they made submissions to senior ASEAN officials, on the Draft Agreement for the Establishment of the ASEAN Human Rights Commission. Dr. Sriprapha Petcharamesree, a member of the Working Group, was also selected as the first Thai representative to the AICHR.

  1. The establishment of the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) in 2010 and the ASEAN Committee to Implement the Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers in 2007

The Working Group had been meeting with ASEAN, through the ASEAN Foreign Ministries, since 1996. Aside from meeting with ASEAN, the Working Group started co-organizing Workshops on the ASEAN Regional Human Rights Mechanism involving participants representing ASEAN Member States, National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs), the academe and some NGOs. The conclusions and recommendations of the workshops were then formally submitted by the Working Group to ASEAN for its consideration.

Through these workshops, ASEAN had been able to discuss human rights issues at a regional level, though in an informal setting. Some of the issues tackled included women, children and migrant workers’ rights, as well as human rights education. The workshops have harvested concrete proposals on progressing towards the establishment of an ASEAN regional mechanism on human rights. In fact, the terms such as “establishment of an ASEAN commission on the promotion and protection of the rights of women and children” and the “elaboration of an ASEAN instrument on the protection and promotion of the rights of migrant workers” were culled verbatim from these workshops.

ASEAN itself has a few groups that are focused on progressing human rights for the region. It’s important that these groups are supported so that human rights issues are addressed effectively and that public policy also includes human rights considerations. While the subject may continue to be challenging for policy makers in some countries to take onboard given that the region still struggles with some poverty and other social/economic issues, groups like the Working Group help ensure that the human rights agenda is given due representation.