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FOCUS March 2003 Volume 31

Regional Cooperation for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific Region

Jefferson R. Plantilla

With the objective of putting in place a regional system to promote and protect human rights, governments in the Asia-Pacific have been participa-ting in the annual workshop sponsored by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The system being referred to, however, is not yet equivalent to a regional human rights mechanism as found in other regions of the world. The governments in the region, for a variety of reasons, do not yet see such mechanism becoming a reality in the near future.

Regional cooperation on four main issues is the main concern of the annual workshop.

The 11th workshop was held in Islamabad on 25-27 February 2003. Representatives of 29 governments, 11 national human rights institutions (plus the Asia-Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions), and 9 non-governmental organizations attended it. Aside from the OHCHR delegation, there were representatives of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and International Labour Organization (ILO). It reviewed, as in the previous workshops, what transpired since the last workshop was held in Beirut (3-6 March 2002) and discussed what should be done next.

A pre-workshop consultation among non-governmental players was held on 24 February 2003. The representatives of national human rights institutions and non-governmental organizations attended the consultation.

Statements from the main organizers

The Honorable Raza Hayat Hiraaj, Pakistan Minister of Law, Justice and Human Rights opened the workshop. In his address to the participants, he stressed the value of learning from the experiences in the region in promoting and protecting human rights. He likewise emphasized, among others, that “any discussion on the Right to Development cannot ignore the inter-connectivity and holistic approach required for addressing all the rights contained in the Declaration on the Right to Development.” He further explained that an integral part of the right to development is the right to self-determination. He said that:

[W]hen a people’s right to self-determination and freedom are brutally suppressed by foreign occupation, they can be expected to resist. Terrorist attacks must be condemned. But acts of terrorism by individuals or groups cannot be the justification to outlaw the just struggle of a people for self-determination and liberation from colonial or foreign occupation. Nor can it justify state terrorism.

The newly-appointed UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Sergio Vieira de Mello, in his opening speech took note of the “profound feelings of insecurity and fear” present all around the world. Elaborating on this issue, he said that:

[T]he security of States and the region flows from the security of the human being. This security, in turn, is guaranteed by the rule of law and respect for human rights, both of which form a unifying force, a force that can serve to chart a path across difficult terrains.

Making sure that there is a clear understanding of the concepts he mentioned, he explained:

What do I mean by the rule of law? Under the rule of law, conflict is resolved and wrongs are righted by applying objective, impartial, democratically established rules. An independent, impartial judiciary is the cornerstone for the rule of law in any democratic society as are checks and balances such as independent national human rights institutions. The rule of law means that those in power are accountable - that there is no impunity for violation of the law and individuals have remedies when their rights under the law have been violated. The rule of law means that everyone is equal before the law, that no person or group is outside the protection of the law or faces discrimination.

The rule of law is a constant; it applies at all times to all States to all persons. The sophisticated, intertwined body of international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law refined over the last half century guides States in times of peace and war. It sets minimum standards for governance. It protects the internally displaced. It protects civilians in times of conflict. It protects those who cross borders in search of refuge from persecution. Even a state of emergency declared to meet an exceptional threat to the life of the nation should be an extension of the rule of law and not an abrogation of it.

Most importantly, it is human rights ­ the rights that attach to us all ­ that infuse the rule of law with values, and ensure that we live with the rule of law and not a sterile, dangerous rule by law. It is human rights standards that tell us what are the basic rights of all people that must be protected by the law. The long struggle for social justice in this region is inspired by the desire to live in full freedom; it is inspired by the desire to exercise all rights: civil, cultural, economic, political and social.

The High Commissioner went on to emphasize that it is “possible to take appropriate action in response to terrorist acts, or to prevent them, while still respecting human rights… human rights standards already strike a fair balance between freedoms and national security. After all, the standards were drafted by the States themselves, who had keen awareness of their own security concerns.”

He also stressed the importance of the regional workshop and requested a focus of the discussions on the following directions:

  1. ratification of international human rights treaties;
  2. establishment of national human rights protection system;
  3. regional cooperation that encourage governments to measure progress in promoting and protecting human rights;
  4. recognition of the growing and constructive role of national human rights institutions and non-governmental organizations; and
  5. partnership among UN agencies and international institutions.

Workshop discussions

The program of the regional workshop is organized according to the four main issues under the Tehran Framework: a) National Human Rights Plans of Action and national capacity building; b) human rights education; c) National Human Rights Institutions; and d) realization of the right to development and economic, social and cultural rights. An introductory remark precedes the interventions (mainly sharing of information about national activities) by representatives of governments, non-governmental organizations, and national human rights institutions.

In the session on national human rights plans of action, the introductory remark of Mr. Vitit Muntarbhorn of the Faculty of Law, Chulalongkorn University, focused on the need for such action plans and the importance of having a participatory process in developing them. Mr. Muntarbhorn stressed that there should be a difference between national plan and government plan. A national plan is one made not only by governments but also by the different sectors of society in an open, democratic process. The reports of the participants from Indonesia, Mongolia, Nepal, the Philippines, and Thailand explain that their national human rights action plans have some or more of the following characteristics:

  1. drafting process:
    1. drafted by multi-sectoral (government and non-governmental) committee or inter-agency task force
    2. b. based on country-wide consultation process held prior to final version of the plan.
  2. plan provisions
    1. based on baseline survey/human rights assessment data
    2. provide flexibility in implementation in view of different social and cultural contexts of the country
    3. adopt decentralized implementation program
    4. cover many sectoral issues.

The support provided by the UNDP in either the development of the national human rights action plan or its evaluation is noted. It has provided assistance to Mongolia, Nepal and Philippines in this regard.

Some of the countries (namely, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Republic of Korea and India) that do not yet have a national human rights action plan expressed interest in doing so. A couple of other countries however expressed preference for sector-based action plans (such as those made separately for women and children).

For a comprehensive guide on drafting the national human rights action plan, see the Handbook on National Human Rights Plans of Action issued by the OHCHR.1

In the session on national human rights institutions, Ms. Meg Jones of the OHCHR gave the introductory remarks. She stressed that the national institutions are important partners in promoting the rule of law. They occupy a central position in the national human rights protection system. She also mentioned that the Asia-Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions is a success story. Similar structures for national human rights institutions are now being established in Europe and the Americas.

The representatives of the national human rights institutions spoke about their programs and activities. They highlighted some of the important issues they are working on such as those on law reform (review of the Internal Security Act of Malaysia or the National Security Act of South Korea, proposal for the enactment of anti-discrimination law also in South Korea), investigation of cases (such as the impact of mega-development projects in Thailand), human rights education, and decentralization of operations (especially in the case of India and Indonesia). The representative of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea maintained that while it has no national human rights institution as such, the government created national coordination committees headed by high-level government officials for women and children respectively. He also mentioned that the North Korean government is still considering the establishment of a national human rights institution but prudence and wide-ranging consultation would be needed. He said that a close study of the issue is needed due to the fact that most existing national human rights institutions have no power to enforce their recommendations. He explained that there are no resources in North Korea to communicate with the different parts of the country. He also said that a grievance machinery is already in place.

Additional comments were made on the role of other related institutions (such as ombudspersons, constitutional courts, and human rights courts), the regional offices of the national institutions, and the possibility of expanding of their mandate in view of the new issues (such as effect of anti-terrorism on human rights) that arise.

In the session on human rights education, Mr. Jefferson R. Plantilla of HURIGHTS OSAKA noted the variety of human rights education-related activities that were held during the previous 11 months. He pointed out that these activities reflect some of the concerns covered by the Workshop’s 2002-2004 Programme of Action including the need for multicultural understanding of human rights, the need for dissemination of materials, best practices, expertise and other resources, the development of national human rights action plan, use of effective educational methodologies and materials, and continuation of these educational activities. The representative of the government of Palau gave a brief report on the Sub-regional Workshop for Pacific Island States on Human Rights Education and the Administration of Justice held in Nadi, Fiji on 25 - 27 June 2002. The participants in this workshop discussed the need for a separate human rights arrangement for the Pacific.

The representatives of governments, non-governmental organizations and national human rights institutions gave their respective reports/comments on human rights education activities. They generally mentioned the development of programs for government personnel, prison officials, members of the security forces, members of the justice system, students, and the general public. On the content of human rights education programs, two issues came out quite strongly: the need to teach both rights and duties, and the need to use local wisdom/culture/values in understanding human rights. The teaching of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was frequently mentioned. Some cited the collaboration between government agencies, and between government agencies, the national human rights institutions and non-governmental organizations, in implementing the programs. They also mentioned various ways of disseminating human rights information such as through seminars and workshops, and printed materials. The representative of the South Korean government reported the use of the internet to disseminate human rights information to government personnel and to the general public. Some government representatives noted the problems such as lack of funds and expertise that affect the implementation of the human rights education programs. Finally, some mentioned the support provided by UN specialized agencies such as the UNDP in developing government programs.

In the session on regional arrangement, Mr. Muntarbhorn explained the current state of efforts toward having a regional human rights mechanism in the Asia-Pacific. Since a regional mechanism is not contemplated in the near future, he cited the possibility of having subregional arrangement such as the ASEAN mechanism proposal. Comments from the participants dealt with the need to cover transborder issues (such as migrant workers issue) in any regional arrangement, the good experience of the Advisory Council of Jurists (of the Asia-Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions) in advising governments on particular issues, the use of existing human rights declarations in the region (such as the Islamic Declaration of Human Rights), the need for capacity-building prior to actually building up the regional arrangement, and the need to bring on board other regional initiatives which are not called human rights initiatives and yet human rights is integral in their programs.

In the session on economic, social and cultural rights, and the right to development, Mr. Nicholas Howen, representative of the OHCHR in the region, explained the concept of rights-based development. Comments from the participants touched on the adverse impact of globalization on human rights (specifically the right to development) especially for countries with poor economic condition. Several governments stressed the need for international cooperation to complement national efforts. A couple of governments, on the other hand, questioned the meaning of rights-based approach to development and insisted that the provisions of the UN Declaration on the Right to Development would suffice.

Mr. Akhtar Ahsan, Joint Secretary of the Pakistan Ministry of Law, Justice and Human Rights, and Chair of the Workshop, facilitated the adoption of the Conclusions of the Workshop.2 The last portion of the Conclusions states the following:

Participants in the Islamabad Workshop thus:

65. Recognize the close relationship between and the mutually supporting nature of the four pillars of the Framework for Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region and call on member States of the region to take concrete steps, as appropriate, at the national level in connection with the implementation of the Tehran Framework;

66. While noting that the Tehran Framework for Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region is mainly a Governmental process, acknowledge the importance of participation by national institutions, non-governmental and intergovernmental organisations, and the private sector; the initiative of holding a consultation of non-governmental actors prior to the official opening of the workshop; and their reports to the plenary, and call on the OHCHR to establish partnerships with these actors in the implementation of the Tehran Framework;

67. Note that the implementation of the activities envisaged under the Framework for Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region, including the programme of action for 2002-2004 adopted in Beirut, is the responsibility of all States in the region and agree to strengthen joint efforts, including through cooperation with the OHCHR and the various United Nations Country Teams, within the Asia-Pacific region towards the implementation of these conclusions;

68. Express their appreciation for the efforts made by the OHCHR to implement the 2002-2004 Programme of Action for the Framework for Cooperation in Asia-Pacific region and encourages the OHCHR to continue implementing the activities under the Framework;

69. Call on United Nations agencies, global and regional financial institutions and bilateral donor agencies to examine how they could support the implementation of the activities, including in poverty reduction strategies under this Framework, including through financial and technical support and the provision of human resources;

70. Welcome OHCHR Regional Representatives’ role in advising Asia-Pacific Governments, at their request, on the implementation of their activities under the Framework;

71. Request the OHCHR to present, for the consideration of the next Asia-Pacific workshop, a paper containing concrete ideas in connection with further strengthening regional and sub-regional endeavours;

72. Agree to disseminate widely the results of this annual Workshop, as appropriate, among relevant Government ministries and institutions, national human rights institutions, non-governmental organisations and academic institutions and other partners at national, sub-regional and regional levels;

73. Call upon the OHCHR to report at the next annual Workshop, on progress achieved in the implementation of the Framework for Cooperation for the promotion and protection of human rights in the Asia-Pacific region;

74. While welcoming contributions already made to the OHCHR by Member States of the Asia-Pacific region, invite all of them to consider contributing for the first time or increasing their contributions, particularly with respect to activities in the area of technical cooperation and the strengthening of national capacities and infrastructures in the field of human rights as outlined in the 2003 Annual Appeal;

75. Invite all States in the Asia-Pacific region to host inter-sessional sub-regional workshops within the Framework for Cooperation and welcome the offer made by the Government of Qatar to host the upcoming sub-regional workshop on human rights education in schools for the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and in cooperation with the GCC;

76. Welcome the offer of the Government of the Republic of Palau to host an annual or an inter-sessional workshop within the Framework for Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region.

Gaps and recommendations

Several issues and suggestions that were raised formally and informally during the workshop were not incorporated in the Conclusions. They bear significantly on the expectations about the regional workshop. It is worth repeating them for the consideration of the governments in adopting the Conclusions and program of action in the next workshops.

First, it is suggested that there should be a good system of reporting on the progress made at the national and regional levels in-between the annual regional workshops. Not all governments present a report on what had transpired in their respective countries on activities related to the Tehran Framework. The government reports (coming from about one-third of the total number of governments represented in the workshop) presented during the sessions are not put on record. There is a high probability that activities reported in the previous workshops are being mentioned again. Or, their reports are not adequately covering the activities undertaken. Thus the suggestion to have a table of accomplishments would help participants understand much more the progress of the national activities and facilitate the discussions on what needs are there that should be addressed through regional cooperation.

Second, it is suggested that there be preparatory process for the annual regional workshop. The non-governmental players (national human rights institutions and non-governmental organizations) lament the lack of dissemination of information about the workshop (especially the draft Conclusions) months before it is held. This restricts them from consulting people and organizations in their respective countries about the workshop agenda, and from engaging governments in a dialogue to discuss concrete measures relating to the agenda. Prior national consultation on the agenda of the regional workshop is likely to help in the discussions on what steps to take next under the framework of national and regional cooperation.

Third, it is suggested that other institutions in the region be engaged in the follow-up activities of the workshop. The academic institutions, constituting a separate category, can be such other institutions. The Indonesian and Pakistani representatives mentioned the establishment of human rights research centers based in universities. They lauded the important role that these centers would play in the field of human rights. It is thus suggested they should be given more prominent role at the regional-level activities. One area relates to the work being done by the Advisory Council of Jurists established by the Asia-Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions. The Council can establish a working relationship with these centers in developing advisory opinions on specific human rights issues. These centers are also functioning as resource centers, and therefore can provide human rights information at both national and regional levels.

A related suggestion is on a follow-up mechanism for the realization of the right to development. Such mechanism can assess the human rights instruments that relate to the right to development and provide support to countries on their development programs.

Fourth, the issue of anti-terrorism measures vis-a-vis human rights raised by the UN High Commissioner Sergio Vieira de Mello at the opening ceremonies and by Mr. Muntarbhorn in one of the sessions deserves serious consideration. There is a need to determine how national security can be maintained in the context of counter-terrorism without impinging on basic human rights. Due process and the rule of law, as universally understood, should guide any counter-terrorism measures to avoid violating human rights. The same issue was raised by then UN High Commissioner Mary Robinson and some participants, during the 10th regional workshop held in Beirut last year. It also did not make it in the Beirut Conclusions.

Jefferson R. Plantilla is a staff member of HURIGHTS OSAKA.

Endnotes

  1. The Handbook on National Human Rights Plans of Action is available on-line at: http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu2/plan_action.htm
  2. The Conclusions of the Workshop is available at: http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu6/islamabad.htm

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