New Asean Rights Focus Face Same Old Impediments

The Asean human rights body has announced plans to focus on the responsibility of businesses in upholding human rights, particularly of migrant workers โ€” a key issue in the region โ€” but with its recommendations not legally binding, analysts doubt the effort will amount to anything.

Rafendi Djamin, an Indonesian commissioner to the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), recently said the rights body would make business responsibility on human rights and migrant workers its inaugural pressing issue this year.

Rafendi said this issue would be high on the rights bodyโ€™s agenda during its weeklong meeting starting today in the Vietnamese beach resort town of Danang, along with finalizing its organizational procedures, a process that has been stalled since its inaugural meeting in March in Jakarta.

"We will conduct this thematic study about business responsibility on human rights and migrant workers to produce recommendations for the Asean Foreign Ministers Meeting," Rafendi said during a discussion at the Habibie Center last week.

He added, however, that the recommendations "will not be legally binding," therefore member states will not be obliged to take further action.

Wahyu Susilo, a migrant worker analyst from the International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development (Infid), told the Jakarta Globe that he doubted the regional body could go ahead with its "well-intentioned regional initiatives" if states stuck to their guiding principle of non-interference in the affairs of other Asean members.

"That would be the main stumbling block for the AICHR to be successful," Wahyu said.

Activists have criticized the rights body as a paper tiger because it lacks the authority to impose punishments for human rights violators, and for its focus on promoting instead of protecting human rights.

In the AICHRโ€™s first meeting in Jakarta, the body rejected meeting requests from civil society organizations and four national human rights institutions from Asean countries on the grounds that members had not agreed on the Rules of Procedure of the commission. It also turned down human rights violations cases submitted by a group of victims.

The moves were lambasted by the bodyโ€™s critics as evidence of Aseanโ€™s general lack of commitment to human rights in favor of political and economic stability. Members Vietnam, Laos and Burma, long-time targets of human rights groups, were believed to be behind the decision to not meet with civil society representatives.

The AICHR is also expected to announce the regionโ€™s own human rights declaration next year, when Indonesia assumes the chairmanship of Asean, Rafendi said.

The Asean Human Rights Declaration is mandated in the bodyโ€™s terms of reference as "a view to establishing a framework for human rights cooperation through various Asean conventions and other instruments dealing with human rights."

Haris Azhar, deputy chairman of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), said the AICHR should not wait until next year for the declaration because it is already mandated and that "we should have had it by now."

"However, if the AICHR is speeding up the declaration, it should consider the involvement of many of the regionโ€™s civil society organizations and vulnerable parties to human rights abuses such as migrant workers, refugees as well as other victims of rights violations," Haris said.

The majority of Asean member nations still lack many basic human rights protections, with Burma the regionโ€™s chief pariah. However, all member states have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.

Haris said "politically it would be better to have the declaration when Indonesia chairs Asean" considering the countryโ€™s recently improved track record on human rights compared to some of its fellow Asean members.

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By: Ismira Lutfia
When: 7/2/2014

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