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  5. UN Workshops on Regional Arrangement for Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific

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FOCUS March 1997 Volume 7

UN Workshops on Regional Arrangement for Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific

Since 1990 [1] the United Nations has been organizing regional workshops to discuss the possibility of establishing a regional human rights institution for Asia-Pacific. Workshops had been held in Manila (1990), Jakarta (1993), Seoul (1994), Kathmandu (1996) and recently in Amman.

In the Jakarta workshop, the objectives of the gathering were identified as follows:

  1. To increase awareness among countries in the region of international human rights standards and procedures and of the role of States in implementing human rights norms;
  2. To inform participants of the mechanisms which are available to assist States in fulfilling their obligations under the various international instruments;
  3. To promote bilateral cooperation in the field of human rights between countries in the region;
  4. To foster development of national human rights institutions in the region;
  5. To provide a forum for discussion of questions relating to the establishment of regional arrangements for protection and promotion of human rights.

The workshops had repeatedly expressed support for the idea of having a regional institution similar to the ones established in other regions (America, Africa and Europe). In the Kathmandu workshop, it was stressed however that it is vital that the rationale for any regional arrangement should emerge from within. And that it should be based on the needs and priorities of the region. Thus "... the roles, functions and tasks of a regional arrangement in the Asian and Pacific region should be identified by the Governments in the region, which would develop consensus as to what the outcomes and achievements of a regional arrangement would be."

Arriving at a consensus through extensive consultation among governments in establishing a regional arrangement is required by the diversities and complexities of the region (Kathmandu workshop) specially citing cultural and religious diversity (Amman workshop). The Chairperson of the Seoul workshop even declared that these "... same differences give the region its unique character and, in recognizing this, and in mutual respect therefore among Asian and Pacific nations, lie the foundation and opportunity for regional cooperation in the field of human rights. Indeed, in the very diversity of the region lies its strength."

It should be noted that the workshop's reach widened with the participation of West Asia for the first time in the Kathmandu workshop. And thus explains the reason why the last workshop was held recently in Amman, Jordan.

The Amman workshop reaffirmed the so-called "step-by-step", "building block" approach in establishing any regional arrangement in the Asia-Pacific. According to the Kathmandu workshop the steps or building blocks will include :

  1. conduct of human rights education and development of national human rights education plan in support of the UN Decade for Human Rights Education, and sharing of experiences at the regional level;
  2. ratification of international human rights instruments;
  3. development of national action plans on human rights whereby States identify steps by which they will improve the promotion and protection of human rights at the national level;
  4. strengthening/establishment of national human rights institutions in accordance with the national legislation and Paris Principles;
  5. sharing of national experiences and expertise at the regional level through bilateral and regional consultations, staff exchanges, regional conferences, joint projects and other appropriate programs.

The Seoul workshop Chairperson also mentioned that the "step-by-step", "building block" approach means that the establishment of a regional institution will build on the subregional initiatives such as that of ASEAN and SAARC. This relates to an initiative taken by representatives of the national institutions in Indonesia and the Philippines and a member of Parliament in Thailand lobbying the ASEAN countries to support the establishment of a human rights mechanism for the subregion. This lobby however has largely been ignored by ASEAN. [2]

The Amman workshop went one step further in implementing its conclusions by deciding to form a working group which will design a regional cooperation program focusing, among other matters, on:

  1. strengthening the role of national human rights institutions in promoting the progressive realization of economic, social and cultural rights;
  2. realizing the right to development;
  3. developing methodologies for effective implementation of human rights education;
  4. elaborating guidelines for national action plans in the field of human rights; and
  5. developing strategies for cooperation on common shared problems.

The program design will be developed by drawing upon the expertise within the region to the fullest extent.

It may be asked whether there is an attempt at advocating for concentration on economic, social and cultural rights by the national institutions and thus violate the professed adherence of the participating governments in the workshop to promoting the principles of indivisibility and interdependence of human rights or, in the words of the Amman workshop conclusion statement, "... ensuring the universality, objectivity and non-selectivity of the consideration of human rights".

The Amman workshop particularly called on the UN human rights mechanisms to continue to take note of the human rights impact especially on vulnerable groups, children and women of unilateral measures taken by States that create obstacles to trade relations among States and impede the full realization of human rights. It also reiterated that the important UN technical cooperation activities in the field of human rights should not be amalgamated with UN human rights monitoring activities.

The regional workshops have somehow kept alive the prospect of having a regional human rights arrangement in the Asia-Pacific. But the approach being taken, though may be appropriate to the character of the region, will take years before any concrete result is obtained.

End Notes

  1. The first UN regional workshop for this purpose was actually in 1982 in Colombo. But it was only since 1990 that the workshop is held almost regularly.
  2. See Frank Ching, Asean's Unkept Promise, Eye on Asia, Far Eastern Economic Review, August 22, 1996, page 31. In 1994, the Institute of Strategic And International Studies of ASEAN held a colloquium to facilitate, among other issues, the process of developing a subregional human rights body in ASEAN in support of the latter's decision to consider the establishment of an appropriate mechanism on human rights. 58th Meeting of the Commission on Human Rights, 23 April 1996 (C/CN 4/1996/64) A lobby for ASEAN human rights mechanism has also been initiated by LAWASIA recently.

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