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FOCUS June 2002 Volume 28

Asia-Pacific Workshop on Human Rights: Getting Ready for Action?

The Tenth Workshop on Regional Cooperation for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific Region was held in Beirut on 4-6 March 2002. There were participants from governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), national human rights institutions (national institutions), and UN specialized agencies. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) organized the regional workshop with the Lebanese government as host.1

Civil Society and National Institutions Consultation

The OHCHR held an NGO consultation meeting on 3 March 2002, prior to the regional workshop. The meeting discussed the role of civil society in the regional human rights protection and promotion work. It also reviewed human rights issues in the region that should be emphasized in the regional workshop. This is the second NGO meeting held by OHCHR prior to a regional workshop. The first NGO consultation meeting was held in Bangkok on the occasion of the Ninth regional workshop in 2001.

Representatives of five NGOs, seven national institutions (India, Thailand, Mongolia, New Zealand, Nepal, Palestine, and South Korea), and the Director of Asia-Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions attended the meeting. Aside from the OHCHR officials, there were representatives of the United Nations Economic and Social Council for Western Asia (ESCWA) and UNDP country office (Nepal). There were representatives of other NGOs and national institutions (Philippines, Malaysia, Australia, Sri Lanka, Fiji, Iran, and Hong Kong) who attended the regional workshop but were not able to attend the consultation meeting.

The NGO and the national institution representatives stressed the need to coordinate their activities in the region.

Regional workshop

The workshop was opened by the Foreign Minister of Lebanon (Mr. Mahmoud Hammoud). In his remarks, he mentioned the problem besetting Lebanon caused by Israeli aggression. He mentioned the long period of Israeli occupation of parts of Lebanon and, after its withdrawal, the failure of Israel to take out more than four hundred thousand land mines (or provide a map where the landmines are located) in South Lebanon and West Bekaa. He also mentioned the continued detention of some Lebanese by the Israeli government despite UN resolution calling for their release.2 The Palestinian issue was also raised.

On the steps needed to further advance human rights, he agreed that 'South-North' dialogue is important. He also praised the OHCHR for designating a representative in the Arab region based in Beirut.

Mrs. Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stressed the importance of the appointment of two OHCHR representatives in the region (based in Beirut and Bangkok respectively). These regional representatives work with Justice P.N. Bhagwati, the honorary OHCHR regional adviser. She said that the regional representatives3 help OHCHR become more efficient and effective in responding to requests for advice, and ensure that it remains conscious of the need to fulfill commitments to follow up any activities agreed upon under the Tehran Framework.4 The regional representatives will also work closely with UN country teams (composed of country office personnel of UNDP, UNICEF, etc.) to ensure that human rights perspective becomes part of the work they do, in keeping with their own respective mandates.

Mrs. Robinson summed up the human rights challenges in relation to development:

Poverty eradication without empowerment is unsustainable. Social integration without minority rights is unimaginable. Gender equality without women's rights is illusory. Full employment without workers' rights may be no more than a promise of sweatshops, exploitation and slavery. The logic of human rights in development is inescapable.

She also mentioned that the "phenomenon of terrorism set many challenges to the interlinked purposes of the United Nations - international peace and security, human rights, human development and the rule of international law."

She then explained her thoughts about the workshop. She mentioned the following points:

  1. Since step-by-step approach takes time, there should be identified objectives that member-states desire to achieve over a longer period with biennial rolling programme of action to work towards those goals. The annual workshops became review meetings where states review progress in achieving these goals and approve broad future directions. Thus the participants in the workshop should be senior officials with the necessary decision-making capacity and representatives of national institutions and civil society.
  2. Workshops are not ends in themselves but should always be seen as part of a broader program or project to achieve real change. At the end, the success of the activities should be judged by whether they lead to progress and change at the national level, creating or strengthening national capacities and infrastructures thus affecting in a concrete way people's lives.
  3. The activities under the Tehran Framework should be constantly evaluated and strengthened. The implementation of the national plans of action on human rights for example can be evaluated.5
  4. All partners in this regional process (governments, NGOs, national institutions, OHCHR, other UN agencies, UN treaty bodies and thematic experts, private enterprise and victims of human rights violations) should work together more closely and consistently.

She also said that

The heart of the [Tehran] Framework is the commitment and hard work of states. I urge every state here to examine how it can contribute in a tangible way to the subject matter of the four pillars. It could be to host an activity, to recommend and help shape a project, to make voluntary contributions on which all the activities depend, or to offer the wisdom of your own experiences for the benefit of others.

Workshop proceedings

The regional workshop discussed six main topics: national action plan on promotion and protection of human rights, human rights education, national human rights institutions, right to development and economic, social and cultural rights, World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and other Forms of Intolerance (WCAR), and development of regional and subregional arrangements for the promotion and protection of human rights. Each topic has introductory remarks, followed by reports/comments by representatives of governments, NGOs and national institutions.

Mr. Brian Burdekin, OHCHR adviser on national institutions, gave introductory remarks on the role of national institutions. He pointed out the need for regional cooperation among national institutions in partnership with governments and NGOs. He also mentioned the partnership between the OHCHR and the Asia-Pacific Forum of National Institutions (Forum). A representative of the Forum presented a report on its recent activities including a workshop in Hong Kong on economic, social and cultural rights, and the annual meeting held in Colombo. The Forum accepted the Mongolian Human Rights Commission as its latest member during the annual meeting. Comments from the representatives of governments and national institutions touched on the issue of independence of national institutions from the governments. Many government representatives stated their governments' support for independent national institutions. The representatives of the national institutions, on the other hand, pointed out several measures to effect the independence of such institutions. They raised the following measures: involving different institutions in establishing the national institutions; appointing people belonging to different sectors of society as members of the national institutions; having an appropriate legal mandate; making people in general understand the Paris Principles; having regular report to the public about the activities of the national institutions; and creating working relationship between national institutions and NGOs. The relationship of the national institutions with UN agencies was also stressed by the comments. Several government representatives reported on the steps being taken to create national institutions, as well as problems being encountered.

The introductory remarks on national action plan and on regional and subregional arrangements for the promotion and protection of human rights were prepared by Mr. Vitit Muntarbhorn.6 Several government representatives reported on the existence and implementation national plans for human rights. A few others expressed the problems in developing such plans including the priority given to other issues (such as poverty alleviation program), lack of financial and technical resources, and legal obstacles (such as the relationship between international human rights instruments and domestic law like the Sharia law; and decentralized system of government). The need to make the process of developing national plans open and inclusive (such as holding of nationwide public hearings and the representation of minority groups in the entity tasked with drafting the plan) was stressed.

Several views were expressed on regional human rights arrangement, Some government representatives expressed the need to continue the discussion on this issue including the proposal to create an ASEAN human rights mechanism. It was mentioned that the ASEAN has formally noted the idea of an ASEAN human rights mechanism in one of its high-level meetings. Others cited obstacles to having a regional human rights structure such as the cultural diversity of the region, lack of ratification of many human rights instruments, and the financial implications in operating such structure.

Mr. Jefferson R. Plantilla of HURIGHTS OSAKA gave the introductory remarks on human rights education. He reviewed the activities undertaken during the twelve months prior to the regional workshop. He stressed the importance of pooling the existing resources in the region in order to cover more people, issues, institutions and places. The representatives of governments, national institutions and NGOs agreed on the need to pool resources in the region and create systems that would facilitate this process. Institutions such as the Southeast Asia Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO) should be tapped to play a role in providing training on human rights education. Training on how to integrate human rights education in the school curriculum and in the training programs for professionals, and how to reach vulnerable and marginalized sectors in society were also emphasized. A government representative expressed his government's willingness to support the development of human rights education programs in the region.

Mr. Waleen Sadi, a member of the UN Committee of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, made the introductory remark on the right to development, and economic, social and cultural rights. Mr. Sadi stressed the need to assure that there is equal treatment between economic, social and cultural rights and civil and political rights. He also urged to maximize the use of treaty bodies. He mentioned, for example, that his Committee has explained many issues regarding economic, social and cultural rights, as well issues relating to national institutions. Representatives from governments, national institutions and NGOs raised several comments. One mentioned the need for a new paradigm in realizing economic, social and cultural rights. Another pointed out that while the obligation to realize these rights lies with governments, the international community is responsible for creating the appropriate international order to support the realization of these rights. Others stressed the need to review development projects that adversely affect these rights. It was commented that negotiations with the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and official development assistance agencies forget the economic, social and cultural rights involved. Another mentioned that the destruction of the natural environment adversely affects the realization of these rights.

Mrs. Mary Robinson gave the introductory remarks on the WCAR. She emphasized the importance of making the discussions in WCAR translated into concrete action. She mentioned that the government representatives had a difficult time 'giving birth' to the WCAR Declaration and Programme of Action. But now, the task is to assure the health and growth of the 'baby.'

Opening ceremony of the Tenth Workshop on Regional Cooperation for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in Asia-Pacific

Statement of Conclusions

The government representatives adopted the Statement of Conclusions of the workshop with an annex entitled "2002-2004 Programme of Action for the Asia-Pacific Framework for Regional Cooperation for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights."

Critical issues regarding the workshop

A number of critical issues should be addressed in maximizing the benefit of the regional workshop.

  1. Participants

    There is a need to heed the call of Mrs. Robinson for governments to send representatives who are 'senior officials with the necessary decision-making capacity' so that discussions can be more definitive in terms of setting broad future direction for the workshop. With such representatives, the discussions may also become more concrete.

    The representatives of national institutions, NGOs and even some UN agencies are normally heads or occupying positions with capacity to make decisions. Thus, governments should 'match' the NGO and national institutions with their corresponding representatives.

    On the other hand, there are not enough NGO representatives in the workshop. There are still many more NGOs working on the issues in the agenda of the regional workshop that are not represented. The representation of regional NGO networks is important to cover the concerns of many national NGOs who cannot attend the regional workshop.

    UN specialized agencies are also poorly represented. And their representatives do not participate actively in the discussions (probably due to their own technical rules). To maximize their presence, they should be asked to take more active role.

    The better-represented institutions are the national institutions. Except the Komnasham, all national institutions in the Asia-Pacific were represented in the regional workshop. With high-level representation, they send the message that they are serious in engaging the governments in the discussion of human rights issues.

    Media representatives should likewise be invited not only to discuss ways of disseminating the results of the regional workshop but also to take an active part in implementing the program of action.

  2. Discussion format

    The sessions are normally reporting sessions. There is a need to have more time to discuss the issues raised by the resource persons as well as by the participants in order to fully clarify practical suggestions for action. This relates to the idea of changing the nature of the workshop into a review meeting with the aim of assessing how far the activities have been implemented and what measures can be taken to achieve full implementation.

  3. Preparatory activities

    Part of the preparation for the workshop should be the preparation of country or issue-based reports. This however does not seem to be uniformly done by the participants. The reports will show how governments, NGOs and the national institutions have acted upon the agreed activities.

    National level workshops, consultations and meetings can be preparatory activities that would widely disseminate the agenda of the workshop and help gather as much involvement of national organizations in discussing the current state of implementation of the program of action.

    Needless to say, international, regional, and national/local media should be involved at this preparatory stage.

Concluding note

The annual regional workshop organized by the OHCHR is a major human rights event in the Asia-Pacific region. It is the main forum through which the OHCHR facilitates dialogue and planning of activities on human rights among governments and the civil society. But it has not been given appropriate attention by the regional human rights community and the governments, and is largely ignored by the region's mass media.

Technical rules about the conduct of the sessions, the type of representatives of governments, and the preparatory steps should be reconsidered in order to improve the discussion of activities under the Tehran Framework.

Since the Tehran Framework covers many activities and human rights concerns, it is only logical that more support should be solicited from all partners/participants in the region. With the participation of all key players, the regional workshop can become a truly regional process of addressing human rights concerns. This is a challenge the regional workshop has to face.

Endnotes

  1. The regional workshop was held in the United Nations Social and Economic Council for Western Asia (ESCWA) building in Beirut.
  2. He also said that the Israeli Supreme Court upheld the legality of continued detention of the Lebanese.
  3. OHCHR will also appoint representatives for other regions of the world.
  4. See FOCUS Asia-Pacific issue no. 17, September 1999, pages 7-8 for the details of the Tehran Framework.
  5. The Philippine national human rights plan is now undergoing evaluation through the technical assistance of the UNDP.
  6. He was not able to arrive in Beirut. Mr. Gianni Magazzeni, OHCHR senior human rights officer, read his papers instead.

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