ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights Enhances Transparency, Publishes Report

sg gives remarks at 7th ASEAN-United Nations Summit
The 2015 ASEAN-United Nations Summit
Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) published on August 1, 2016 its annual report on activities and progress for the period of July 2015 to July 2016, marking the first time an AICHR annual report was made public on its website. [AICHR Press Release] The AICHR, a regional human rights body founded in 2009 under the auspices of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), is required under its Terms of Reference to write annual reports on its activities in promoting and protecting human rights in the region. The AICHR’s most recent report discusses the goals and vision for the AICHR’s future work in the areas of internal and external collaboration, the effectiveness of its activities, and the development of a framework for thematic studies, reflecting its stated goals in its recently adopted Five-Year Plan (2016-2020). The past year’s activities, which largely reflect the former Five-Year Plan (2010-2015), included internal meetings with other ASEAN bodies and an external dialogue with the European Union, implementation and dissemination of both the 2012 ASEAN Declaration on Human Rights (ADHR) and the accompanying Phnom Penh Statement on the Adoption of the AHRD, and the conferral of consultative status on 11 civil society organizations (CSOs). See AICHR, The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights Annual Report 2016 (2016). Civil society is encouraged that the publication of this report marks a movement towards enhanced transparency, but the report has met criticism for not including recommendations on the AICHR’s growth and that it still reflects a low level of transparency around the Intergovernmental Commission’s work. [The Star] The AICHR first proposed publishing its annual reports online in its 2015 annual report, available elsewhere online.

Improving the Effectiveness of the AICHR

The AICHR seeks to improve the effectiveness of its activities through monitoring and evaluation, a framework for thematic studies, and collaboration with external regional and national bodies and internal ASEAN bodies. On the first point, the AICHR hopes that by introducing monitoring and evaluation of its own work, the AICHR will be able to increase institutional memory, capacity, and effectiveness through capitalizing on past activities and successes. See AICHR, The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights Annual Report 2016 (2016) at 15. Therefore, in addition to a monitoring and evaluation scheme, the AICHR also seeks to introduce trainings for staff members of the AICHR on capacity building. See id.

The AICHR noted its need for a standardized institutional scheme under which to conduct thematic studies. The reported stated that a lack of “national focal points for thematic studies of the AICHR has delayed progress.” Therefore, the AICHR suggests in the report that the framework for conducting thematic studies may include selecting national focal points, engaging experts in the process, determining the feasibility of the study, evaluating the need for the study in the context of ASEAN, and identifying methods for determining the impact of the study. See id.

The AICHR identified national, regional, and universal bodies with which it should build its relationship. Specifically, AICHR identified the United States and Japan, the European Union and other regional bodies, and the United Nations as partners to work into its network. Additionally, it noted the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism as a partner for collaboration; the working group is a coalition of government representatives, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), academics, and national human rights committees who work towards building an ASEAN human rights mechanism. As part of its goal to increase collaboration with the identified States and bodies, the AICHR hopes to increase its presence at international and regional events. See id. Additionally, the AICHR seeks to build collaboration within ASEAN through joint projects with other ASEAN bodies, particularly the Committee of Permanent Representatives and the three Community Councils that represent each of the three pillars of ASEAN. See id. at 14. The three pillars of ASEAN refers to the Political-Security Community, the Economic Community, and the Socio-Cultural Community. See ASEAN, About ASEAN.

While not explicitly marked as a focus for improvement, the report also remarked on the challenges new AICHR representatives pose and the hope that those challenges will be addressed in the future. The AICHR received eight new representatives. The report noted that trust is an important issue among the representatives and “is a prerequisite for the success of their collective effort.” The report went on to express the hope that “the new members will bring positive impacts to the programme of work of the AICHR as trust is effectively forged among the ten Representatives.” See id. at 12.

Thematic Meetings and Activities

The AICHR held in the past year several meetings, workshops, and other events internally and externally with civil society or international bodies. During the AICHR’s own meetings with all ten representatives in attendance, the AICHR reviewed, adopted, or discussed concept papers on thematic topics such as women’s rights, including protection of women and girls from gender-based violence and the specific protection needs of women in disaster situations and in human trafficking; the rights of persons with disabilities; media and human rights; corporate social responsibility; and youth and human rights. See id. at 3-4.

Additionally, the AICHR held meetings and workshops in an effort to raise awareness of human rights in the region and to develop “common approaches and positions on human rights matters for ASEAN” on some of the same thematic areas, such as the rights of persons with disabilities and human trafficking. For instance, as part of its programmatic approach to activities, the AICHR is “mainstreaming” the rights of persons with disabilities through regional dialogues that will, AICHR hopes, increase awareness of the rights of persons with disabilities, develop a network aimed at addressing the issue, and establish “a common standard and approach” on the rights of persons with disabilities so that they are “mainstreamed in all three pillars of the ASEAN community.” See id. at 13. Similarly, the AICHR together with government representatives, agencies of the UN, CSOs, and national human rights institutions (NHRIs) held workshops on human trafficking that sought to share regional approaches that the AICHR could then consider in discussions with ASEAN bodies. See id. at 7.

The AICHR seeks to regularize its meetings and events in order to “deepen the content” of the activities, expand awareness of human rights in the region, and foster “common approaches.” As an example, the AICHR noted that its work on corporate social responsibility will continue as Singapore will host a follow up to its thematic study on the topic that “may lead to … a regional agenda and policy.” See id. at 13. The AICHR also held events in the past year on the topics of media and human rights, the role of youth in promoting human rights, human rights and the environment, the development of legal instruments, and the transition of AICHR representatives. See id. at 5-9.

Interactions with Other Bodies and Civil Society

Within ASEAN, AICHR met with the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting, Committee of Permanent Representatives (CPR) to ASEAN, and the Secretary-General of ASEAN. See id. at 9-10. At the 48th Foreign Ministers Meeting, the ministers endorsed the new Five-Year Plan and encouraged the AICHR’s efforts to increase collaboration with other bodies and CSOs. Additionally, the AICHR brought up the need to review their Terms of Reference to see what possible expansion of activities they can pursue. See id. at 10. The AICHR met with the CPR, a body that supports all three pillars of ASEAN, to propose cooperation across the three pillars of ASEAN, and the two bodies agreed to conduct joint events on human trafficking and the rights of persons with disabilities in the future. See id. The Secretary-General mirrored this, encouraging cross-pillar coordination. See id. The AICHR also requested the ASEAN Secretariat to incorporate gender equality into its work and promote the rights of persons with disabilities by making the grounds accessible and providing equal employment opportunities. See id.

Externally, the Commission had dialogues with the European Union (EU) and United States Agency for International Development (USAID). See id. AICHR, the ASEAN Commission on the promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children, the ASEAN Committee on Women, and the ASEAN Committee on the Implementation of the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of Migrant Workers met with members of the European Parliament, the Human Rights and Democracy NGO network, and CSR Europe for the first EU-ASEAN policy forum. See id. at 10-11. Participants in the meeting discussed several thematic issues, including the rights of migrants, the rights of women and children, the rights of persons with disabilities, corporate social responsibility, and the right to development. They also discussed interaction with civil society. See id. at 11. The AICHR met with the US Ambassador to ASEAN for the first time and with USAID representatives in April 2016. USAID encouraged AICHR to increase public awareness of human rights in the region and expressed interest in future collaboration. See id.

In two meetings, the AICHR granted consultative status to 11 different CSOs. According to the ASEAN’s Guidelines on AICHR’s Relations with Civil Society Organisations, the AICHR may grant consultative status to CSOs, who will then engage with the AICHR at events and meetings. The AICHR may also seek out advice from CSOs.

Background on ASEAN and AICHR

ASEAN was established in 1967, in the midst of the Cold War, as a means to accelerate economic growth, social progress, and cultural development through regional cooperation. There are 10 ASEAN Member States: Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. See ASEAN, Overview. In 2007 the ASEAN Charter codified its guiding principles; established legal personality for ASEAN; and created several subsidiary ASEAN bodies, including the AICHR. See Charter of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (adopted 20 November 2007, entered into force 15 December 2008).

Under Article 4 of the Terms of Reference, the AICHR is mandated to promote and protect human rights in the region; to encourage implementation of the ADHR and other ASEAN instruments; and to provide technical assistance, research, and recommendations to ASEAN bodies regarding human rights. Unlike other regional bodies, such as the African, Inter-American, and European systems, the AICHR does not have an individual complaints mechanism. The ADHR, which the AICHR drafted, is a non-binding legal agreement.

The Human Rights Situation in Southeast Asia

Civil society organizations have pointed out numerous human rights problems that plague ASEAN Member States, including many of those discussed in AICHR meetings in the last year. Human trafficking and violations of women’s rights, the rights to freedoms of expression, association, and assembly, and the rights of refugees and migrants plague the ten countries. [HRW: ASEAN] Many of the leaders of the Member States have severely restricted the rights to freedom of expression and of assembly through censorship and detention. [HRW: ASEAN] Censorship has included, in the case of Indonesia, language that supports LGBT individuals, creating an environment that sanctions attacks on LGBT people and limits the rights to freedom of expression. [HRW: Indonesia] Civil society has called on the government of the United States, with which the AICHR seeks better collaboration, to raise human rights with ASEAN in a meaningful way. [HRW: ASEAN]

Additional Information

For more information on the Asian human rights system, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.