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FOCUS March 2004 Volume 35

Regional Workshop on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights

Nobuki Fujimoto

The 12th Workshop on Regional Cooperation for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific Region, held on 2-4 March 2004 in Doha, Qatar, was attended by representatives from 35 countries and the Palestine Authority, 2 inter-governmental organizations, 16 national human rights institutions and the Asia Pacific Forum, and 7 non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including 2 organizations in Qatar.

The Twelfth Asia-Pacific Workshop reviewed the progress achieved since the Islamabad Workshop (February 2003) under the four priority pillars of action for technical co-operation for the promotion and protection of human rights in the Asia-Pacific region (Tehran Framework). Activities relating to national human rights action plans, national human rights institutions, human rights education, and the right to development and economic, social and cultural rights were presented.

The major initiatives included the Sub-Regional Workshop on Human Rights Education in the Gulf States School System (Doha, Qatar, February 2004), the Eighth Annual Meeting of the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions (Kathmandu, Nepal, February 2004), and the sub-regional workshop for judges and lawyers on the justiciability of economic, social, cultural rights in the North-East Asia (Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, January 2004).

The 12th Workshop also aimed to review the current initiatives for the development of regional and sub-regional arrangements for the promotion and protection of human rights in the Asia-Pacific region, in addition to discussing and identifying the next steps in the context of the Regional Framework for Technical Co-operation, with particular focus on a forward looking dialogue on the reformulation of the four areas under the Tehran Framework.

Consultation Meeting among Non-Government Actors and OHCHR

Prior to the Workshop, the OHCHR again organized the "Consultation of Non-Government Actors" on 1 March 2004. Representatives of national human rights institutions and NGOs attended the meeting with representatives of OHCHR. Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn gave some remarks. He expressed his concern about 'globalization 'and 'terrorism'. He stressed the importance of dealing with anti-terrorism measures in a balanced manner to ensure that human rights are protected. While he pointed out the significance of the four pillars of the Tehran Framework, he suggested that it would be necessary for the workshop to focus on certain issues.

Regarding the absence of human rights protection system in the Asia-Pacific region, Professor Muntarbhorn cited the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) initiatives. Two treaties having a bearing on human rights were adopted by SAARC in 2002 - the Convention on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Women and Children in Prostitution, and on the Regional Arrangement for the Promotion of Child Welfare in South Asia.

The initiative by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to establish a subregional human rights mechanism has not gone far since 1993. The civil society initiative (the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism), on the other hand, has been lobbying for it. At the Bangkok seminar in 2003 attended by government and NGO representatives, a roadmap on the establishment of an ASEAN Human Rights Commission was adopted.

He also lamented the fact that out of seven major international human rights treaties, only the Convention on the Rights of the Child has been ratified by all the countries in the entire Asia-Pacific region.

The participants were divided into four working groups and separately discussed the four issues of the Tehran Framework. More participants joined the groups for the national human rights plans of action and national human rights institutions issues.

The group on human rights education discussed the initiatives taken in the Gulf region, Australia, Philippines, and Japan. The group recognized the importance of further promoting human rights education, particularly for school children and groups which play a particular role in the development and maintenance of society, such as legislators, judges, members of the military and police, etc. As a conclusion, the group agreed to support the proposed second UN Decade for Human Rights Education, with a prior review of the achievement of the present UN Decade for Human Rights Education (1995- 2004).

The results of the working group discussions were reported in the plenary session of the Workshop. At the same time, several proposals from the groups, such as a revision of the Handbook on National Human Rights Action Plans produced by OHCHR to include updated material from country experiences and more detailed technical methodology and protocols, and the support for the second UN Decade for Human Rights Education were presented in the Workshop as recommendations from the non-governmental actors.

Regional Workshop

H.E. Ahmed Al Mahmoud, Minister for Foreign Affairs Qatar, opened the Workshop. In his inaugural speech, the Foreign Minister stressed that human rights are indispensable for human beings, lacking them they will not be able to optimally carry out their mission as thinkers or workers, and, hence, producers and innovators.

Addressing the opening session, Mr. Bertrand Ramcharan, Acting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, mentioned that the Asia -Pacific region has made great stride in the four-priority pillars for human rights action identified during the 1998 Tehran Annual Workshop. However, he added, "Despite the great achievements, we are now faced with the great challenges in upholding human rights. There exists an engulfing gap between human rights in law and those in practice. This is not an exception to the Asia-Pacific region." He cited several challenges to be tackled, including human rights protection, prevention of human rights violation, poverty, rights of children, justice and empowerment for women, democracy and rule of law, new threats, such as terrorism and bio-technology.

The workshop went on to discuss the four issues under the Tehran Framework.

Presentations on issues

In the first session on national human rights action plans (NHRAPs), Ms. Wan-Hea- Lee, International Human Rights Adviser, UNDP-Mongolia, made a presentation as a resource person. She reported that out of 17 countries where NHRAPs were adopted around the world, 5 countries from Asia-Pacific region (Australia, Indonesia, Mongolia, Philippines, Thailand) adopted them so far. Work on the preparation for NHRAPs began in Nepal, New Zealand, Malaysia, and Palestine Authority. She recognized the skepticism of some sectors about NHRAPs on the ground that some were forgotten after adoption or some were not included in the national budgeting processes and national development strategies. However, she stressed that the preparation of NHRAPs can be an important process as long as civil society is involved.

In response, some government representatives mentioned that they have national plans that are equivalent to NHRAPs even though they are named differently.

While the drafting of NHRAPs did not gain much support in the Asia-Pacific region, establishment of national human rights institutions (NHRIs) gained such support. Dr. Purification V. Quisumbing, Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines, discussed this 'growing industry 'in the region. New NHRIs were established during the last two years such as the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and the Palestine Independent Commission for Citizens 'Rights. They became members of the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions during its Eighth Annual Meeting held in Kathmandu in February 2003.

Chair Quisumbing mentioned that NHRIs should act as bridge between the government and the civil society in promoting human rights. She noted that NHRIs could be a vehicle in supporting and moving the other three pillars.

D r. Sev Antoni Ozdowski, Human Rights Commissioner of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission of Australia, pointed out that NHRIs should also be granted independent consultative status with ECOSOC, just like the NGOs.

Explaining the background of the UN Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004) since the Vienna Conference, Chair Quisumbing stressed in her presentation the importance of reviewing the Decade. There should be a review on what have been done, what activities in each country have been undertaken, and what is the positive side of the Decade. She mentioned that we can find a great potential for a second Decade by taking a look at the experience of the first Decade. The NGOs presented their support for the proposed second Decade.

As far as national plan of action for human rights education is concerned, only Japan, Philippines, Thailand, Pakistan and India have such plans.

While representatives of NHRIs from Australia and New Zealand supported Chair Quisumbing's opinion on the second Decade, no government representatives expressed support for the proposal. This might have led to the toning down of the final text of the workshop conclusions on the second Decade.

From a human rights perspective, many government representatives addressed the importance of rights-based approach to development. They were concerned about the adverse impact of globalization, especially on vulnerable people. Some touched on the coincidence of the workshop being held in Doha where the fourth World Trade Organization Ministerial Meeting (Doha Round) was held in 2001. They also recognized the significance of realizing the UN Millennium Development Goals.

Conclusions and 2004-2006 Programme of Action

On 4 March 2003, final day of the Workshop, the Conclusions of the Twelfth Workshop on Regional Cooperation for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific Region, and 2004-2006 Programme of Action for the Asia-Pacific Framework on Regional Cooperation for the Promotion and Protection on Human Rights were adopted by government representatives. The final document came out after 5-hour closed meeting of government representatives.

The Conclusions document consists of 51 paragraphs, while the 2004-2006 Programme of Action is divided into four pillars. Paragraph 20 of the Conclusions, touching on human rights education, states that the participants "(R)ecognize the contribution of the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004) in raising awareness about the promotion and protection of human rights, look forward to the forthcoming report of OHCHR and UNESCO on the status of human rights education at the local, national, regional, and international levels and acknowledge the ongoing consultations towards consideration of the second Decade for Human Rights Education."

In his remarks on the next step for the Workshop, Professor Muntarbhorn gave several suggestions on adding value to the Tehran Framework. He suggested, for example, the involvment of parliamentarians and people from the media in the Workshop. He stressed that adjustments are required and an active step-by-step approach is needed to ensure that "building blocks "become even more concrete step-ping stones to the future.

The United Nations Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) organized the work-shop in cooperation with the Government of Qatar. For the full Conclusions document, please visit:

www.unhchr.ch/html/menu6/dohaconclusions.doc

Nobuki Fujimoto is a staff member of HURIGHTS OSAKA.


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