* Nobuki Fujimoto is a staff member of HURIGHTS OSAKA.
The 13th Workshop on Regional Cooperation for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific Region, organized by the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) was held on 30 August to 2 September 2005 in Beijing. It was attended by representatives of 34 governments, the Palestinian National Authority, 17 national human rights institutions (NHRIs), the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions (APF), 13 international organizations (including the United Nations agencies), 3 regional inter-governmental organizations, 13 non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and 5 resource persons.
The Workshop reviewed the progress achieved since the 12th Workshop (Doha, March 2004) in the four areas for technical cooperation (national human rights action plans, national human rights institutions, human rights education, and right to development and economic, social and cultural rights) under the so-called Tehran Framework. The review included the Inter-sessional Expert Meeting on Human Rights Plans of Action and Human Rights Education in the Asia-Pacific region (Bangkok, October 2004), 9th Annual APF Meeting (Seoul, September 2004), Sub-regional Workshop for Judges and Lawyers on the Justiciability of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Southeast Asia (Manila, November 2004), Regional Conference on National Human Rights Institutions in the Arab World (Cairo, March 2005), and the 10th Annual APF Meeting (Ulaanbaatar, August 2005). The Workshop also took stock of the national, subregional and regional initiatives within the four areas for technical cooperation.
For the first time, the Workshop focused on a particular theme: human rights and human trafficking . There was also a presentation on possible ways of changing the structure of the Workshop.
Prior to the Workshop, OHCHR organized the "Consultation of Non-Governmental Actors, National Institutions, Sub-regional Organizations and representatives from UN system" on 29 August 2005.
The representatives of NGOs, NHRIs, United Nations (UN) agencies and regional inter- governmental organizations reaffirmed their commitment to the development of a regional arrangement/mechanism and called on governments to establish national human rights institutions in full compliance with the Paris Principles as a necessary step towards strengthening national promotion and protection of human rights. They endorsed many of the suggestions raised by Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn of Chulalongkorn University on the future structure of cooperation on human rights in the region. The meeting recommendations were formally presented in the Workshop.
The Workshop opened with the welcome address of Mr. Tang Jiaxuan, State Councilor of China. Mr. Tang stressed that human rights work in the Asia- Pacific should conform to the principles of equality and mutual respect, and emphasized the necessity of upholding the purposes and principles enshrined in the UN Charter and international human rights instruments. On the other hand, he stated that each country should choose its own way of promoting and protecting human rights based on national conditions. He said that "[T]here is no uniform standard with regard to national action plans, national human rights institutions or human rights education." He explained that the purpose of regional cooperation is to facilitate "emulation, exchanges and cooperation so as to achieve common development and progress." He appreciated the current forms of regional and sub-regional cooperation represented by the League of Arab States, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), and the Pacific Islands Forum.
Ms. Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, emphasized the importance of regional mechanism in ensuring a better respect for human rights. She stressed that its importance lies in the fact that it is designed to "articulate a common approach to a complex problem, an approach that will assist states, from a position of shared regional values, to address shortcomings in their national frameworks so as to allow individuals the means to enjoy their rights in full, and to obtain effective redress when those rights are denied."
While the Workshop is meant to take stock of the activities organized under the Tehran Framework, it is suggested that it should not be a mere reporting exercise. This suggestion was raised by some of the resource persons and representatives of national human rights institutions such as Dr. Purification V. Quisumbing, Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines.
Presentation of reports however resulted in substantive discussions especially on the Workshop's thematic issue.
Ms. Sigma Huda, the UN Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children, reported the overall situation on trafficking in Asia- Pacific with specific country examples. She questioned the effectiveness of the crackdown on trafficking partly because of the involvement of organized crime in many countries and corruption among law enforcement and immigration officials. She believes that human trafficking is a microcosm of many of the complex social issues facing global society, including gender disparities, migrants' rights, and cultural imperialism. She is convinced that any successful anti-trafficking strategy has to place the human rights of victims at the center by taking into account international best practices such as those embodied in the UN Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Human Trafficking.
The Special Rapporteur expressed the importance of regional cooperation in the prevention of trafficking and the protection, repatriation and reintegration of trafficked victims.
In connection with regional cooperation, Ms. Melissa Stewart of the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking in the Greater Mekong Subregion (UNIAP) reported that UNIAP brings together 6 governments (Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam), 12 UN agencies, 8 international NGOs, and a wide variety of partners in the anti-trafficking community since June 2000. The project aims to reduce the severity and harm associated with human trafficking in the sub-region. UNIAP led to the establishment of a government-led process named Coordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiatives Against Trafficking (COMMIT) in order to forge cooperation and common action to combat human trafficking. They agreed on this initiative in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) adopted in October 2004. Consequently, COMMIT adopted a sub-regional plan of action in its meeting in Hanoi in March 2005.
While there is absence of human rights mechanism in the entire Asia-Pacific region, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) made some progress toward establishing a subregional mechanism. Atty. Carlos Medina Jr., Secretary-General of the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism, reported that the Working Group was formed in reaction to the lack of movement after the 1993 ASEAN declaration favoring the establishment of a regional human rights mechanism.
The Working Group is an informal coalition of groups and individuals working in human rights institutions, academe, and NGOs in Southeast Asia. Its primary objective is the establishment of an intergovernmental human rights mechanism in Southeast Asia.
Its continuous dialogue for more than 10 years with ASEAN senior officials brought about a significant development for the establishment of the mechanism. ASEAN adopted the Vientiane Action Programme (VAP) in 2004, which enumerates programs on human rights. It contains, among others, the formulation and adoption of a Memorandum of Understanding to establish a network among existing national human rights mechanisms, elaboration of an ASEAN instrument on the protection and promotion of the rights of migrant workers, and establishment of an ASEAN commission on the promotion and protection of the rights of women and children.
In the July 2005 meeting in Vientiane, ASEAN asked the Working Group to help implement the four areas of the VA P, namely, a) establishment of the commission on women and children, b) elaboration of the migrant workers instrument, c) human rights education, and d) networking among existing national human rights mechanisms in the region. Atty. Medina explained that this development is one step or block in the "step-by-step" or "building block" approach of the Workshop. This approach takes a long time and is difficult, but certainly the only effective way forward.
Professor Muntarbhorn examined the past activities of the Workshop and made suggestions on the future structure for regional cooperation on human rights. He cited the need to, among others, expand the space in the Workshop, adopt five-year programming for the Asia-Pacific region with high/ministerial-level workshop, and support the decentralization of OHCHR presence through subregional offices in the Pacific, South Asia, West Asia, Northeast Asia, and Southeast Asia. The current, OHCHR Bangkok office will be converted into a sub-regional office for Southeast Asia under this scheme.
On 2 September 2005, the final day of the Workshop, government representatives adopted the Conclusions of the 13th Workshop after many hours of negotiations among themselves. While the issue of human rights and human trafficking was given importance as a special concern (a positive development for the Workshop), little significance is given on suggestions regarding the future structure of the Workshop proposed by Professor Muntarbhorn. The Conclusions simply "take note" and "express appreciation" for the suggestions.
The Workshop proved that the step-by-step approach is really needed to establish a human rights mechanism in the Asia-Pacific region.
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1. The Tehran Framework was adopted in the 6th Workshop held in 1998 in Tehran.
2. E/2002/68/Add. 1, ECOSOC, C20 May 2000
3. This is the Joint Communique of the Twenty - Sixth ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, Singapore, 23-24 July 1993, in www.aseansec.org/3666.htm
4. For further information see ASEAN Adopts Declaration Against Trafficking in Persons in www.aseanhrmech.org/WGPages/activities_04Trafficking.htm
5. Professor Muntarbhorn, as commissioned by the OHCHR, presented a paper on this issue entitled "In search of the rights track : Evolving a Regional Framework for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific Region."