Civil Society Advocates a More Robust Regional Mechanism as ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights Reviews its Terms of Reference 

Special Meeting of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights on the Review of the Terms of ReferenceCredit:AICHR
Special Meeting of the AICHR on the Review of the Terms of Reference
Credit: AICHR

Earlier this year, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) began a series of regional consultations with governments and civil society on the revision of its Terms of Reference (TOR), one of the commission’s principal governing documents.  The AICHR, which began operating in 2009, has been criticized as insufficiently committed to human rights accountability and lacking in independence and transparency.

These consultations are part of a required five-year review of the TOR, but also reflect an interest in reconciling opposing views of the AICHR’s role in regional human rights protection. Civil society, in particular, is advocating for the AICHR to adopt the characteristics of its counterparts in Africa, the Americas, and Europe by expanding its mandate to include country visits, inquiries, and a complaints mechanism, and by ensuring adequate independence and staffing support for its members. [Human Rights in ASEAN] In August 2014, the AICHR will recommend changes to its TOR at the 47th Meeting of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers, but the actual adoption of any changes may not occur until 2016. [Myanmar Times] 

Regional Consultations

The AICHR recently held two regional consultations with relevant stakeholders concerning the TOR review.  The first consultation was held in Jakarta, Indonesia at the end of April 2014. [AICHR: Second Regional Consultation] The AICHR met with representatives of ASEAN Sectoral Bodies on the first day and with representatives of civil society organizations on the second day. [AICHR: First Regional Consultation] The agenda on both days reportedly included assessment of the AICHR’s work, its relations with ASEAN Sectoral Bodies, and methods for further promoting and protectiong human rights in the region. [Human Rights in ASEAN] Participants in the consultation identified areas of concern such as the lack of sufficient protection for human rights mandated in the TOR and the absence of institutionalized engagement with civil society. [Southeast Asian Women’s Caucus on ASEAN]

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) submitted a memo prior to the second meeting outlining several of the TOR’s perceived shortcomings and proposing amendments. These potential revisions included: changes to prevent States from using TOR Article 2.2, which adopts the principle of “non-interference in the internal affairs of ASEAN Member States,” to avoid accountability for human rights violations; giving greater importance to the role of civil society; and implementing more stringent requirements for the selection of AICHR Representatives. ICJ, Memorandum on the Terms of Reference of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) (2014).

The second meeting, held from June 27-28 in Bangkok, Thailand, included more than 100 attendees. [AICHR: Second Regional Consultation] Once again, officials from ASEAN States and bodies, United Nations representatives and members of civil society gathered to discuss and debate the upcoming review of the TOR. States were each allowed to invite one civil society representative and one academic to attend the consultation, although some States may have barred the participation of civil society members who had been critical of their governments. [Myanmar Times] ASEAN also issued invitations to prominent members of civil society.

Participants reportedly debated two different approaches to revising the TOR: either making significant changes to the provisions, or giving the existing terms a more expansive interpretation. [Myanmar Times]

Following this second consultative meeting, the AICHR held a special meeting from July 10-11 in Singapore to consolidate the input and suggestions received during the two regional consultations. [AICHR: Special Meeting on Review of TOR] Input from the consultations will be included in the recommendations that the AICHR presents to the ASEAN Foreign Ministers in August. [AICHR: First Regional Consultation]

Civil Society Concerns

The review of TOR and the consultative process have prompted members of civil society, the media, and other stakeholders to express their concerns about the effectiveness of the AICHR as a regional human rights body.

Prior to the start of the second regional consultation, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) expressed their deep concern that “AICHR has failed to establish or outline possible means to improve human rights protections for the people in ASEAN over the last five years.” APHR identified the need for the implementation a direct communications mechanism and an emergency protection mechanism, improvements to strengthen the AICHR’s existing mandate, and AICHR’s independence from political or governmental control. [AHPR] These characteristics – a complaints system, provisional or interim measures, detailed monitoring or reporting mechanisms, and political independence – are shared by the other regional human rights bodies in Africa, the Americas, and Europe.

Similarly, in a recent concept note, FORUM-ASIA identifies several weaknesses in the AICHR’s functioning, including:

  • decision making by consensus rule
  • “consultative” body not designed for effective monitoring or enforcement
  • lack of independence for representatives
  • reluctance to apply universally accepted human rights law and standards

[FORUM-ASIA] However, the note also acknowledges the review of the TOR as a “unique opportunity to strengthen AICHR into an independent body that is grounded in universally recognized human rights law and standards.”

Dr. Yuval Ginbar of Amnesty International is quoted as saying:

We know that all beginnings are tough, but after five years we are no longer at the beginning – it’s time for AICHR to become a human rights commission worthy of its name.


Other Recent Activities

Recently, AICHR has sponsored other meetings and human rights initiatives in the region.In July 2014, AICHR hosted a workshop designed to inform participants about human rights reporting procedures. Participants had the opportunity to learn about the reporting procedures to both UN treaty bodies and the Universal Periodic Review.  The Workshop included presentation by several UN bodies including the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Committee on Economic Social Cultural Rights (CESCR) and the Human Rights Committee.  Over the course of the event, participants also made recommendations on how regional challenges to human rights reporting could be addressed. [AICHR: AICHR Regional Workshop]

In June 2014, AICHR held the “Workshop on CSR and Human Rights in ASEAN: Outcomes of the AICHR Thematic Study,” after completing its first thematic report on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and human rights. [AICHR: Workshop on CSR] That report will also be submitted to the ASEAN Foreign Ministers at their meeting in August. [AICHR: Special Meeting on Review of TOR] The preparation of studies on thematic issues is part of the AICHR’s mandate according Article 4.12 of the TOR.

In preparation for the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting, AICHR will hold a final special meeting at the beginning of August. Additionally, a number of human rights workshops are scheduled for the upcoming months. [AICHR Calendar] 

ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights

The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), a regional human rights body, began operating in 2009 under the auspices of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The criticisms raised during the TOR review consultations echo those made at the time of the AICHR’s creation.

The AICHR’s mandate and function are outlined in its Terms of Reference (TOR) and Guidelines on the Operations of the AICHR. The AICHR is composed of ten State representatives, one for each ASEAN Member State. Its current functions include conducting thematic studies and holding workshops and other meetings. [AICHR: About]

The AICHR has adopted several human rights declarations including, the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women in the ASEAN Region, and the ASEAN Declaration on Strengthening Social Protections.

For more information on AICHR’s history and mandate, see the IJRC Online Resource Hub page on Asia.