Bread. 26 October 2009
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:
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'.
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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:
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.
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