Yawning Bread. 26 October 2009

Throwing fish




The Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights was launched last Friday in Hua Hin, Thailand, with appropriate farce. In the preceding months, wrangling over its terms of reference has resulted in a toothless body and a change of name. It is now "intergovernmental", and tasked with "promoting" human rights, rather than protecting. In other words, its now-trimmed mandate extends to sweetly telling people what rights they ought to have in the ideal world but can't really do anything to help when rights are violated, which is a daily affair in every country of Asean.

Each of the 10 member countries has a representative on the Commission. Burma selected Kyaw Tint Swe, the junta's ambassador to the United Nations, who has long defended the military government's record there, and who might be expected to do the same on the human rights body. Brunei tapped Abdul Hamid Bakal, a Shariah court judge, to represent the democracy-free sultanate.

This is not to say the body is comprised only of mere sycophants. While I don't know the background of most of the representatives, two names struck me. One was Rafendi Djamin, the Indonesian representative, and the other Sriprapha Petcharamesree. They both look well qualified for their jobs. Just google the name 'Sriprapha Petcharamesree' and tons of information (and awards) come up.

Rafendi is likewise a well-known human rights activist, with a record of speaking up on various issues including Burma.

I even see on the Thinkcentre website  a quote attributed to him criticising the terms of reference (TOR) for the Asean Human rights body. He said, "This TOR is far below the expectations of the Asean peoples. It subjects the body to the principle of non-interference of the internal affairs of Asean member states, thus raises the question of how effective this body can be."

"We are also disappointed that spaces for civil society to participate in the work of the body is not mentioned anywhere in the TOR, thus leaving the participation of civil society at the discretion of the member states and the members appointed to the body. This certainly is not in line with the aspiration of making ASEAN a ‘People-oriented ASEAN’. We call on ASEAN to conduct wider and more regular consultations to address the concerns of civil society over the TOR."

From Antara News Agency, I learn that while Rafendi might have been appointed by the Indonesian government, it was through a process of genuine consultation with civil society. Antara reported on 17 October 2009: 

The Indonesian government has appointed human rights activist Rafendi Djamin to represent it in the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), a foreign ministry spokesman said.

Director of ASEAN Political and Security Affairs Ade Sukendar made the remarks here on Friday.

"The process of appointing a human rights representative begins with national consultations in Jakarta in which the candidates need to be nominated by at least two organizations," he said.Every ASEAN member country must assign a representative in AICHR which was established on the basis of Article 14 of the ASEAN Charter, he said.

You can hear Rafendi on Radio Australia here. In the introduction, the presenter runs through a list of human rights problems in a number of countries. For "advanced and wealthy" Singapore, she singled out "discrimination against gays and lesbians".

About the terms of reference, Radio Australia commented: "The 11-page document setting out the framework for the intergovernmental commission on human rights is laced with qualifications and generalisms." Moreover, Rafendi pointed out, the "principle of non-interference, if you're going to put it that way, is one that becomes barriers for the human rights body to operate."

How much difference Sriprapha's and Rafendi's presence can make on the body is too early to say. The latter had optimistic words for the media though. As reported in the Sunday Times, he said he saw the body's potential to, eventually, effectively protect human rights. "Ultimately this commission will have a more explicit protection function," he told the paper, adding, "we should be guardians of the process over the next five years". Note the word 'eventually'.

* * * * *

Singapore's representative, Richard Magnus, seemed more concerned about not stepping on various dictators' toes. Asked by the same newspaper to say a few words, he chose to point out the need for countries "appreciating each other's sensitivities." [1] 

As for how the Singapore government decided on retired judge Richard Magnus as its representative, it is cloaked in secrecy. As far as I know, Magnus has no record of involvement or interest in human rights.

To complete the farce, the Singapore government joined four other Asean governments in refusing to meet and dialogue with civil society through representatives selected from the non-governmental Asean People's Forum by their peers. This was part of the program surrounding the Asean summit at Hua Hin. 


Thailand's Nation newspaper reported the incident thus:

Civil-society leaders slam Asean govts over snub 

By Kittipong Thavevong
The Nation
Published on October 24, 2009

Asean's civil-society activists yesterday strongly condemned Asean governments for mistreatment of their representatives.

They accused the governments of poor treatment and disrespect by rejecting five of their 10 representatives from an informal meeting with the leaders and "gagging" five others who were allowed to attend.

Three of those allowed to attend - Sawart Pramoonsilp from Thailand, Yuyun Wahyuningrum from Indonesia and Moon Hui Tah from Malaysia - walked out of the "interface" meeting in protest to show solidarity with their colleagues from Burma, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines and Singapore who could not attend.

"We feel strongly that the rejection of our democratically selected representatives is a rejection of both civil society and the democratic process," the group said in a statement released yesterday.

The activists were informed by the Foreign Ministry shortly before midnight on Thursday that the five would not be allowed at the meeting, according to the statement. Those who could attend were told to be ready to be picked up at 7am yesterday, nearly five hours before the scheduled meeting around noon.

The civil-society groups said the latest move by certain governments of Asean was "fundamentally undermining the spirit and content" of the Asean Charter that was approved and became effective since last December. The charter promotes the idea of a people-centred Asean.

"We are deeply disappointed at the irresponsibility and apparent irrationality of the governments' position," the statement said. "We plead with these leaders to stop trying to kill the spirit of an Asean community. Such moves not only hurt the development of the region but also the credibility of individual member states and Asean as a whole." Yesterday's informal meeting, lasting about 30 minutes, went ahead as planned around noon at the Dusit Thani Hua Hin Hotel in Phetchaburi's Cha-am district. Government leaders met with civil-society representatives from Singapore, Burma, Brunei and Vietnam. Singapore and Burma selected substitutes for the activists from the Asean people's forum who were rejected.

You'd notice form the last sentence that Singapore alone joined hands with Burma in putting up its own "civil society" representative. Our government is truly shameless. What kind of dialogue is worth its name if one side chooses who its interlocutor is for the other side?

Again, this is no slight on T. K. Udairam, chair of Mercy Relief, who was forklifted into the room to meet with the leaders, in place of Sinapan Samydorai. Mercy Relief does good work, with beneficial impact on thousands of people.

In a statement rebutting the activists' comments, Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said that Asean foreign ministers meeting in Phuket in July had agreed that each Asean member would choose its own CSO representative for the dialogue.

It said the Asean Socio-Cultural Community Council in Bangkok in August agreed with the foreign ministers' decision and added that the CSO representatives should be chosen from humanitarian and development sectors.

-- Straits Times, 24 Oct 2009, Asean
human rights body launched

These technicalities are designed to obscure a simple truth: The Singapore government, like its friends, the generals in Burma, refuse to engage with activists of any sort. Why else did the foreign ministers adopt such a policy in the first place?

Once more, this is not to say that those who labour at humanitarian work do not contribute hugely to society. They most certainly do. But there is an important distinction to be made between humanitarian work and advocacy for social justice. One salves wounds; the other points out that wounds should not be inflicted in the first place.

It's akin to the Christian parable about doing good by giving out fish, but doing better by teaching people to fish.

Since governments are responsible for justice, laws and administration, it is all the more important that they should engage with activists -- the ones who will tell you what is wrong and what needs to be fixed and how. It's well and fine to be talking to those who do charitable work. But good governance and justice requires ministers to listen too to critics of the systems they preside over.

© Yawning Bread 





From the Think Centre's website:

ASEAN civil society groups feel strongly that the rejection of their democratically-selected representatives is a rejection of both civil society and the democratic process. CSO Reps were selected to meet the ASEAN leaders from over 500 CSO representatives, during the 3-day APF-ACSC, 18-20 October 2009.

* * *

At 11:30pm, Thurs, Thai foreign Ministry officials informed organizers of APF that 5 out of 10 civil society representatives were rejected from the interface meeting with ASEAN heads of government. The remaining representatives were told to be ready for pick up at 7.A.M., nearly 5 hours before the scheduled meeting.

These representatives arrived at the Dusit Hotel and were instructed that they would not be permitted to speak at the event. The only person from civil society allowed to make a statement would be Dr Surichai Wangaeo of Chulalongkorn University, who was originally appointed as moderator of the Interface.

The representatives were further shocked to learn that Singapore and Myanmar had selected substitutes from government-sponsored agencies. Singapore selected a substitute from a charity and the Myanmar regime selected Sitt Aye and Win Myaing, of the Anti-Narcotics Association (Win Myaing is a former high-ranking police officer).

These developments rendered the interface, an important space for civil society to engage with government officials, utterly meaningless. Therefore, the representatives of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia decided to walk out of the meeting.




  1. Sunday Times, 25 October 2009, Human rights body a step forward 
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