Insights and Analysis

Human Rights Addressed in ASEAN Charter

November 21, 2007

By Carolyn A. Mercado, Steven Rood

On Tuesday, November 20th, the leaders of the 10 Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) countries attending the 13th ASEAN Summit in Singapore signed the first-ever ASEAN Charter. Article 14 addresses human rights:


1. In conformity with the purposes and principles of the ASEAN Charter relating to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, ASEAN shall establish an ASEAN human rights body.

2. This ASEAN human rights body shall operate in accordance with the terms of reference to be determined by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting.

While any mention of human rights in the ASEAN charter can be read as progress, clearly the details of implementation remain to be filled in.

The Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism was formed more than a decade ago, in 1995, when human rights advocates from ASEAN countries formally banded together to pursue the creation of an inter-governmental human rights body in the region. A decade of patient and somewhat tedious labor seems finally to have borne some fruit in the new ASEAN Charter.

The Working Group’s effort drew the attention of many of those interested in either ASEAN or human rights, and the AHRWG has over the years received support from many people and organizations: Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, The State Department , the Norwegian Human Rights Fund, the Canadian International Development Agency, and The Asia Foundation.

The “ASEAN way” of slowly building consensus often frustrated the Working Group, eager for progress, but was recognized to be the only approach that would work in the Southeast Asian context. “Unity in Diversity” is a favorite maxim in ASEAN, but Vitit Muntarbhorn, Co-Chair of the Working Group, points out that the situation of human rights in ASEAN might better be described as “Diversity in Unity.” For example, treating human rights as internal affairs rather than international affairs; adhering to traditional “Asian values” of strong government, deference to authority, and the predominance of the rights and interests of the community/family (alternatively, the State); and believing in relativist arguments that universal human rights standards should yield to national and regional “particularities” — made the road to developing a human rights body arduous and fraught with ambivalence and uncertainty.

The ASEAN Human Rights Working Group works both in individual countries and at the regional level. Human Rights working groups were founded originally in the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. In the Philippines and Indonesia, the working groups included the governmental human rights commissions, the chairs of human rights committees of Congress, and Foreign Affairs Ministries. This may be a testament to the leadership of the working groups in these countries, especially former Senator Wigberto Tanada of the Philippines, a respected human rights luminary, and former Indonesian Attorney General Marzuki Darusman, a recognized leader in the region. In other countries, local activities were undertaken by a variety of constellations of nongovernmental, academic, parliamentary, and executive branch agencies.

At the regional level, the AHRWG began to attend the annual ASEAN Ministerial Meeting/Senior Officials Meetings. This started a positive and constructive dialogue with ASEAN government representatives on whether to establish any kind of human rights policy. In 1996, the ASEAN Joint Ministerial Communique first recognized the AHRWG as a dialogue partner and included a provision stating that the “establishment of an appropriate regional mechanism on human rights should be considered.”

The AHRWG also drafted for the ASEAN Foreign Ministers and Senior Officials a “Draft Agreement on the Establishment of the ASEAN Human Rights Commission.” The Commission’s central aim is to promote and protect human rights and will have seven members elected by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Contracting States. Its work will cover only those countries that have ratified the agreement. The Commission would not be a court of law, and, rather than create binding judgments, it would only mediate and make recommendations. This draft was submitted to the Foreign Ministers in 2000 and was met with a muted response. However, in 2001, the draft Commission was referred to the ASEAN-Institutes for Strategic International Studies (ASEAN-ISIS) for comments and for broader discourse on the issue.

The inclusion of a provision in the ASEAN Charter for the establishment of an ASEAN Human Rights body is a huge leap forward given the past ambivalence of ASEAN governments. It is, for now, a major victory as human rights has been integrated into ASEAN’s avowed goals of regional peace, security, trade, and economic development. But the real work has just begun. Concerns over the human rights situation in Burma have led to troubling reports such as that the Philippine Congress won’t ratify the Charter. And even after ratification, the creation of a human rights body will not push through without a Terms of Reference. The working group is preparing for these eventualities. The Working Group is planning to take a “multi-track approach” including engaging individual governments, broadening the support base, identifying new issues and challenges, and maintaining its position vis-à-vis ASEAN. There is clearly much work ahead.

Carolyn Mercado is a Senior Program Officer and Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in the Philippines.

Related locations: Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam


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