By 2000 a number of Asia-Pacific countries had adopted various national human rights plans. These included Australia, Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand. In 2001 the possibility of preparing such plans was being discussed by the following: Mongolia, Nepal, Jordan, Gaza and New Zealand.
How do they converge? While, of course, national plans vary according to their specific situations, there are some areas where they share common ground, including the following:
The emergence of these plans highlights various challenges as follows:
The follow-up phase. This implies the need for follow-up activities, such as reforms, which are recommended by the evaluation. On a positive note, some countries have extended the period of their national plans, or adopted new plans to follow the initial plans, so as to provide opportunities for more follow-up. However, this process is dependent upon the quality of the implementation of the plans and related evaluation. The impact of the plans has to be tested qualitatively rather than quantitatively.
In this regard, it is worth noting that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has supported the preparation of a handbook which helps to indicate the various steps in the development and implementation of such plans.
Recent examples of the evolution of national plans can be seen from two countries. First, the example of Thailand. The 5-year plan was adopted by the Thai Cabinet in 2000. It lists nine orientations as follows:
The Thai plan targets for action many marginalized sectors, e.g. women, children, those with disability, those with HIV/AIDS, stateless persons and prisoners. It even covers some groups not traditionally found in general human rights discourse at the international level, e.g. consumers. However, it shies away from identifying certain groups for protection, e.g. indigenous communities and refugees.
Currently, there are various challenges facing the Thai Plan. Is it being well implemented ? The Plan was adopted by the previous government, and there is now a new government. A key test is to ensure that the plan is seen as non-partisan and that it pertains to all governments. Second, while there have been some reforms pursuant to the Plan, e.g. reform of the Anti-Communist law, it is not altogether clear how the totality of the Plan is being implemented. The Plan is supposed to be monitored by an inter-sectoral group, but this still needs to be activated. Third, with the recent establishment of the National Human Rights Commission, a question has arisen concerning to what extent this Commission is bound to follow the Plan. The Commission is working on its own strategic plan, and while the national human rights plan will be borne in mind, the Commission is likely to follow an independent line. Fourth, many government ministries are still not well briefed about the national plan, thus indicating the need for more dissemination of the plan, related dialogues and sustainable follow-up activities based on more capacity-building and reforms.
Second, the example of the Philippines. The Philippine Human Rights Plan was for the period 1996-2000, and it has now been extended to 2002. It is a detailed plan with many target groups such as women, children, indigenous communities, Muslims, the urban poor and rural workers. The targets set by the Plan have helped to promote law and policy reforms. However, the key test is not so much in the passage of new laws, but in their effective implementation. The implementation process has been assisted by inter-agency 'sectoral working groups'(SWG) consisting of both government personnel and NGOs, and the whole process is closely linked with the Philippine Human Rights Commission. The 1999-2000 report of this Commission notes as follows:
"Under the legislative agenda, nine laws covering 30 measures for children, women, prisoners/detainees, informal labor workers, urban poor and indigenous peoples, were passed. 77% of the proposed measures are ongoing and are covered by 116 Senate and House Bills/Resolution pending in Congress. However, 28 new legislative measures filed in Congress were added to the original plan. However, there are still 20% of the original measures, which have not been translated into actual bills.
Under the administrative and programme agenda, 43 measures covering children, youth, women, elderly, urban poor, prisoners/detainees and migrant workers, have been completed, while 175 others are still being worked out.
At the regional level, ordinances and resolutions on human rights passed by the local government units at various levels are now being implemented and are being monitored by the regional SWG. Primarily, the measures provide policy, local funding, logistics and other support for the implementation of human rights programs, projects and activities for the local areas' priority sectors, such as the creation of women and children's desks in police stations, establishment of Barangay (village/district level) Human Rights Action Centers, implementation of the Philippine Human Rights Plan, creation of Human Rights Councils at different levels, expansion of prison facilities and construction of separate cells for women and children; creation of Human Rights/Desks, nutrition and health care programs for elderly, ...training...."
Given the difficult current political situation facing the country, the implementation of the Plan is faced with many obstacles - not because of the Plan itself but because of the environment around the Plan. Interestingly, the implementation of the Plan is now being evaluated, and the United Nations Development Programme is helping to support this. The lessons learned from such evaluation need to be used well to propel more sustainability of actions at the national and local levels.
These experiences attest to the fact that the formulation of national human rights plans needs to bear in mind a variety of potential challenges in the implementation process, and those stakeholders with the power to help implement them need to coordinate well to build the capacity for effective actions.
The above analysis has endeavored to provide a brief overview of national human rights plans in the Asia-Pacific region - in a realistic manner. There is a need to promote such plans precisely because they provide focus and targets for actions. However, the quality of their implementation needs to be ensured. The credibility of such plans is based upon the basics of any plan development - integrated planning, implementation, evaluation and follow-up, with adequate resources, responsive to the needs of the target groups in a feasible time frame.
It is worth harking back to the Asia-Pacific intersessional workshop on national human rights plans where the participants shared their wisdom on such plans and identified possible elements inherent in the evolution of such plans. They include the following:
The final challenge is to bear in mind consistently that the national human rights plan is merely a means to an end, and not an end in itself; it needs to be process-oriented and outcome-oriented. In this perspective, the plan has to embody 'national', as contradistinguised from 'governmental', aspirations. Hence, the call for a genuine and persistent commitment to be non-partisan, participatory, accessible, transparent and sustainable.
Mr, Vitit Muntarbhorn is a Professor at the Faculty of Law, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok. He was formerly UN Special Rapporteur on the Sale of Children.
For further information, please send communication to this address: Faculty of Law, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand, phone (662) 215-8091 to 94; fax (662) 215-3604, 215-2018.
Note) 1. This is an excerpt of the Introductory Remarks on the same topic read at the Tenth Workshop on Regional Cooperation for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific Region (Beirut, Lebanon, 4 - 6 March 2002).