(This document was presented by the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism to ASEAN Senior Officials on the occasion of the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Manila in July 1998. It was noted in the 31st ASEAN Ministerial Meeting Communique when it stated that "They ... took note of the proposals made by the Working Group during its latest dialogue with ASEAN held in Manila on 22 July 1998." - Editor's note.)
The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) was established in 1967 by the Bangkok Declaration. Its key aims include the acceleration of economic growth, social progress, cultural development and the promotion of regional peace and stability, coupled with respect for justice and the rule of law. Such aims interrelate closely with the need to promote human rights in the region.
In 1993, ASEAN foreign ministers in their joint communique agreed that ASEAN should consider the establishment of a regional human rights mechanism. Some positive developments have taken place since then, including greater emphasis on the role of non-governmental organizations and civil society and more attention paid to child rights and women's rights, as well as cross border cooperation against environmental harm and transfrontier crimes.
It should be noted that in 1988, ASEAN adopted the Declaration on the Advancement of Women in the ASEAN region, and in 1993, it adopted the ASEAN Plan of Action for Children, with recommendations for more protection and development of these groups. All countries of ASEAN are now parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and most countries have signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
All ASEAN countries are favorable towards the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and adopted the 1993 Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action of the World Conference on Human Rights.
These welcome developments should be seen as an emerging process toward the establishment of a regional human rights system. The Asian region, including ASEAN, is the sole region in the world without such system. ASEAN has yet to establish a regional human rights mechanism pursuant to the ministerial statement of 1993.
This issue is most pertinent at a time when there is already much monitoring of human rights developments in ASEAN from organizations outside the ASEAN region, including the United Nations. The lack of an ASEAN mechanism implies that while the region is exposed to monitoring from sources outside the region, there are few opportunities for the region to take stock of human rights developments from the standpoint of ASEAN. The establishment of an ASEAN human rights mechanism with governmental support should help to redress this situation so that the ASEAN perspective is better understood by outsiders. This should complement the need to promote international human rights standards in the region.
A key initiative in recent years has been the establishment of national human rights institutions in several ASEAN countries with government support. These exist currently in Indonesia and the Philippines in the form of national human rights commissions. Thailand has a parliamentary human rights standing committee, and under the 1997 Constitution, it is due to establish a national human rights commission within two years of the promulgation of this Constitution. Malaysia is also considering the possibility of a similar mechanism.
An international network of these institutions and others from outside the ASEAN region has been formed and has been meeting annually.
Side by side with government initiatives, members of civil society in ASEAN started to consult each other in 1993 concerning the possibility of an ASEAN human rights mechanism. This led to the establishment of the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism (The Working Group) which is composed of human rights advocates from governments, parliaments, non-governmental organizations and the academe who make up the national working groups in ASEAN states. In 1996, the Working Group met with ASEAN Ministers in Jakarta, and in 1997, it met with ASEAN Senior Officials in Kuala Lumpur during the 29th and 30th ASEAN Ministerial Meetings respectively, to discuss developments concerning a regional human rights mechanism.
In 1997, it also held a workshop in Kuala Lumpur which advocated the establishment of a national human rights institution in every country of ASEAN. It noted, however, that the existence of these institutions is not a necessary prerequisite to the establishment of a regional human rights mechanism. It has mobilized support for the promotion of a regional human rights mechanism in the region.
Although the notion of a regional human rights mechanism was referred to in the 1993 ASEAN ministerial communique, it has yet to be explored. The need for follow-up of this issue has led to the following proposals to ASEAN from the Working Group:
Promote and support the human rights-related activities by ASEAN governments and NGOs, e.g., training of law enforcers on human rights, human rights education, advocacy, etc.;
Develop and harmonize national social policies of ASEAN members for the promotion of human rights;
Encourage the establishment of national human rights institutions such as commissions and committees, and national working groups on human rights in all ASEAN countries, in accordance with international human rights standards; and
Examine the various possibilities for the establishment of a regional human rights mechanism, in particular, a regional human rights commission, as an inter-governmental body to promote human rights in cooperation with civil society. There is a variety of possibilities for the role of the commission, including the promotion of human rights and the provision of remedies, bearing in mind ASEAN's interest in regard to the protection of vulnerable groups. This may be based on a step-by-step approach for the progressive realization of the mechanism.
Towards this end, the Working Group suggests that ASEAN undertake the following actions in the immediate future:
Promote and support human rights activities, in particular, those in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights;
Regularize its contacts with the Working Group and acknowledge it as an important catalyst (Track 3 approach based on dialogue between civil society and ASEAN) for the promotion of human rights in ASEAN, and to sustain the momentum for the eventual creation of a regional human rights commission;
Create a task force to examine the issues of form, substance and procedure related to the establishment of a regional human rights commission;
Sponsor a regional conference for ASEAN to exchange views on the establishment of a regional human rights commission;
Foster more programs for the promotion of child rights, women's rights, and the rights of other vulnerable groups, bearing in mind the need to follow up its Declaration on the Advancement of Women in the ASEAN Region and its Plan of Action for Children; and
Reiterate through the ASEAN foreign ministers in their next communique, ASEAN's commitment towards realizing the 1993 communique in Singapore of the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting and further undertake efforts towards the eventual establishment of a regional human rights commission.
For further information contact: Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism c/o LAWASIA Human Rights Committee Secretariat, Ateneo School of Law, Rockwell Center, Rockwell Drive, Makati City, Metro Manila, Philippines, e-mail: email@example.com