Within the intricate and distant galaxy of ASEAN institutions stands the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR).
Although it’s an official body, the AICHR doesn’t possess an autonomous secretariat.
Instead, it is supported by the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta in its functions. In essence, the Commission lacks a designated office or building.
These facts glaringly underscore that, despite the numerous official ASEAN declarations, there’s a woeful inadequacy in human rights protection in the foremost regional bloc of South East Asia.
They also highlight the diminished perception of human rights’ significance within ASEAN power circles, even as they seek to build the world’s most prosperous region.
The bloc predominantly emphasizes development. Only in recent years, particularly after the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals, has there been a begrudging nod to include, at least in name, certain safeguards to ensure sustainable development benefits the region’s populace.
After all, sustainable development is viewed as an apolitical process. In the prevailing regional perspective, it doesn’t demand significant trade-offs.
Adjustments might be necessary, but sustainability is seen as a neutral, albeit challenging, objective that doesn’t threaten regional governance.
This perspective suggests there’s no need to bolster personal and political freedoms, keeping those in power unchallenged. In simpler terms, life continues for them. Human rights rarely feature in discussions when state and government heads convene in their biannual summits.
Given this bleak backdrop, expectations from the AICHR are low. Yet, in recent times, the Commission has endeavored, albeit imperfectly, to demonstrate its relevance.
They’ve achieved some successes, even if they might seem superficial. Dismissing their efforts over the past three to five years could be seen as a disservice to those genuinely striving to navigate a complex situation.
This includes dedicated members from each ASEAN nation, like H.E. Wahyuningrum, Representative of Indonesia to AICHR, who has tirelessly worked to elevate the Commission’s institutional standing.
Their efforts have resulted in AICHR organizing workshops, seminars, and policy dialogues. In areas like human trafficking, rights of persons with disabilities, and business and human rights, the Commission has carved a niche for itself.
While these might not be flagship human rights issues, addressing them can impact many South East Asian citizens.
Recently, AICHR hosted the 1st ASEAN Environmental Rights Working Group Meeting, aiming to develop a regional environmental rights framework.
It remains to be seen whether this framework will become a mere non-binding document, another in a series of lofty ASEAN declarations, or a starting point for revising the ASEAN Charter.
Evaluating its achievements, one could view AICHR’s work over the years as a “glass half full”, especially when acknowledging its think tank and convener roles.
A realistic approach would recognize the efforts of individuals like H.E. Wahyuningrum, an activist turned insider. The Commission has also enhanced its global standing, with significant dialogues planned with European counterparts.
Yet, it would be beneficial for Europeans to interact not just with the Commission, but also with key representatives from ASEAN member states, who can truly influence human rights policies in the region.
Today, the 43rd ASEAN Summit commences in Jakarta. While a lengthy Chairman’s Declaration is anticipated, it may only fleetingly acknowledge the AICHR’s efforts and human rights’ importance.
There might not be updates on revising the Commission’s Terms of Reference, especially the crucial point of allowing citizens to raise grievances. Although a rudimentary mechanism exists on paper, transparency and functionality are lacking.
A thorough review of AICHR’s TOR is essential to realize a regional human rights body that genuinely protects and upholds citizens’ rights.
This should be ASEAN’s fundamental duty. Sadly, it’s convenient to have a human rights entity that merely discusses rather than acts. This is our current reality.
While we should recognize those working within the system, we must also remember that the current setup isn’t what the ASEAN Charter envisioned or what its people desire.
Appreciating AICHR’s efforts and remaining hopeful about its future endeavors is essential, but it shouldn’t lead to complacency in the pursuit of a genuine regional human rights mechanism, which would markedly differ from the present structure.
Simone Galimberti writes on democracy, social inclusion, youth development, regional integration, SDGs and human rights in the context of Asia Pacific.