By Rewi Lyall
With thanks to the International Commission of Jurists Australia, I’ve been provided with a few links concerning the news that last Friday the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) inaugurated a new ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR). As various agencies have reported, the AICHR will have responsibility for promoting respect for human rights in the Member States. In doing so, it has no mandate to investigate particular allegations of abuses, nor any function to protect individuals from such abuses.
For what it’s worth, a Draft ASEAN Youth Statement recently posted by the ASEAN Youth Movement includes, at Article 3.1, that the group:
“Demands the ASEAN Inter-governmental Human Rights Commission (AICHR) to be an independent body which is capable of conducting investigation on violations of human rights in a fair, accountable and transparent manner.”
Promotion, through a commission, is no substitute for protection, through a court. However it is, I would argue, better than nothing at all. In an unattributed opinion piece written for the Wall Street Journal, one critic claims that:
“Like its United Nations equivalent, it’s a toothless body, but it can still do damage to the cause it’s supposed to serve.”
Well, the recent visit by an UN Special Rapporteur to Australia to investigate alleged abuses resulting from (if not inherent to) the Northern Territory Intervention generated a significant discussion about human rights. Sure, the Human Rights Commission couldn’t actually take any action about its criticisms, but in so far as its promotion role included highlighting areas of concern it was fairly successful. Such success is extremely limited, and offers no protection to individuals, but is not in itself detrimental to the pursuit of improved respect for human rights.
So if this was really about taking a first step towards improved respect for human rights in the Member States of ASEAN, that it only has a promotion role would not, I think, be as underwhelming as some have characterized it.
The problem is it looks much more like a delaying tactic. Does anyone truly believe that those Member States that still practice repressive methods of social control have any interest in human rights? The decision of ASEAN to review the powers and functions of the AIHRC every five years will mean that it’s an exceptionally long row to hoe for rights campaigners to see significant progress.
Prime Minister Rudd attended the East Asia Summit which immediately followed the ASEAN summit, and was reportedly expected to again push his proposed Asia Pacific Community. I’ve written on this idea before, but will iterate in the context of this post that perhaps the best first step for the Australian government to pursue would be establishing a regional court along the lines of the European Court of Human Rights, and perhaps a regional court with jurisdiction over any multilateral or bilateral treaties signed by Member States.