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UN High representative’s bold visit to Southeast Asia addresses human rights issues

UN High Representative for Human Rights, Volker Türk’s strategic decision to visit Southeast Asia was a step forward, though much remains to be done to reinforce human rights in the region.

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by Simone Galimberti

The decision to visit South East Asia was a bold one but potentially consequential.

Volker Türk, the United Nations High Representative for Human Rights, made the right call in spending his political and diplomatic power visiting a region where human rights have never been a priority.

In this tour, the High Representative even managed to pull a surprise by including in his itinerary not only Thailand and Malaysia but also Laos.

The latter is a one-party regime system with its abysmal human rights track record that happens to be, this year, the chair of ASEAN.

Engaging the ASEAN at the highest level remains essential also because of the civil war still raging in Myanmar.

It is a region tragically championing extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances where it is the second worst place after Central and South America.

The fate of Sombath Somphone is a stark reminder of this abysmal state.

An acclaimed development worker and human rights activist, by now, he should be a household name not only in the region but within the whole Asia Pacific and beyond.

He tragically disappeared in 2012.

Such episodes are part of a broader pattern in the South East Asia region.

How can we forget the status of press freedom, and what about the big elephant in the room, the death penalty, another human right that is consistently and perversely abused throughout the region?

Unsurprisingly, the visit of the High Representative went mostly unnoticed.

Yet Mr Türk’s visit mattered.

Such high political engagements offer a rare opportunity to remind nations with weak human rights standards about their duties as members of the international community.

In Laos, in what was a brief visit, assumingly made possible just by the fact that Laos is the official representative of ASEAN, the High Commissioner had to navigate a tricky balance.

On the one hand, Mr Türk proved capable of accommodating some instances and grievances close to the regime, issues like public debt and efforts in the area of child protection.

At the same time, he was able also to raise critical and inconvenient issues for Vientiane.

The High Commissioner even gave a public lecture at the Faculty of Law and Political Science of the National University of Laos.

He did talk about public participation and civil society’s role in the development of the nation.

“Freedom of opinion, expression and peaceful assembly are enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Lao PDR is a state party. These freedoms reflect a fundamental human need for agency in our lives and a role in shaping the direction of our societies” Mr. Türk stated.

Yet, at the same, he practically dodged the thorny and, for the regime, embarrassing issue of enforced disappearances.

Mentioning the name of Sombath Somphone would have been going beyond any acceptable red line, something impossible to digest for the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) that have absolute monopoly of power in the nation.

At least, the UN High Commissioner succeed to underscore on the ongoing negotiations of the ASEAN Declaration on the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

Such declaration must be “grounded in international human rights standards and recognises the important role of Indigenous Peoples and environmental human rights defenders” reads the official version of his lecture.

Malaysia’s stop was also important not only because of the international stature of the country but also because Putrajaya will be at the helm of ASEAN next year.

Yet even Malaysia is also at risk of sliding on some vital aspects of his democratic credentials.

Malaysia recently got downgraded in the latest edition of the World Press Freedom Index issued by Reporters Without Borders.

The reason was the sensitiveness of the three Rs (race, religion, and royalty), which always stirred tensions and controversy.

“It doesn’t matter whether we are being downgraded, but what is important is that criticisms are allowed… the issue is when you touch 3R issues, condemning race, condemning religions, inviting and inciting riots. We cannot afford to have that in our country”, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim stated in a recent interview with Al Jazeera.

There are also concerns about some draconian legislations that are still enforced in the country.

“It will be important also to review the colonial-era Sedition Act, as well as other vague and overly-broad legislation like the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (Sosma)”, the High Commissioner share with the authorities in Putrajaya.

“Laws such as the Communications and Multimedia Act, the Peaceful Assembly Act and Printing Presses and Publications Act continue to be used against human rights defenders, including environmental human rights defenders”.

He added: “For a society to be able to harness creativity, innovation and progress, people must be able to express dissenting views without fear of reprisal”.

Yet overall, Malaysia is a success story.

It is also the only country in the region which took important steps towards limiting the capital punishment, though it is still officially on the book.

He also encouraged Putrajaya to adopt and embrace some key international human rights instruments like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Because of the special position that Malaysia occupies in the region, because of the size of its economy and also its political and diplomatic role, the discussions held by Mr Türk there can constitute an important stepping stone for the whole region.

The same Anwar, despite some of its controversies like meeting the top leadership of Hamas in a recent travel to Qatar, is a key interlocutor to strengthen human rights within the whole region.

Mr Anwar could be the one who, when assuming the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2025, make the difference when finalizing the environmental rights declarations.

As of now, the draft is very far from meeting the global benchmarks.

Mr Anwar could also be key in elevating the role of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights which is still tele-controlled by the national capitals and still lacks any enforcing powers.

The Malaysian Prime Minister might also leverage the good office of Mr. Türk to pressure his peers within ASEAN, which remain staunchly averse to any reinforcement of the human rights framework.

I should not waste my time writing about the High Commissioner’s stop in Thailand.

As explained by Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, the whole visit of Mr Türk in Bangkok could have helped Thailand to gain some credibility in its attempt of winning a seat at the UN Human Rights Council.

It ended up being a real embarrassment for Thai PM Srettha Thavisin and his ruling party, the Pheu Thai Party, as no government officials met him.

Evidently, not much has changed since the generals departed from power in Bangkok, and Thailand is not even remotely close to the lead in the area of human rights.

All in all, the visit of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was a positive development for the region,

Though there were clear limitations on what High Commissioner for Human Rights could achieve in his mission to South East Asia, Mr. Türk must continue to engage, also critically, ASEAN, including pressurizing the member states on Myanmar.

What’s next?

A milestone could happen in 2025 if Mr Anwar in his role as chair of ASEAN, would again officially invite again the High Commissioner to the region.

What about a visit of Mr Türk to the ASEAN Secretariat and some high-level discussions with the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights?

Even more audacious would be an invitation by Mr Anwar for the High Commissioner to attend one of the two ASEAN Summits.

That would be probably a significant milestone, heralding the beginning of a long journey for a region where human rights will one day be reinforced and upheld without exceptions or excuses.

The author writes about regional integration, human rights and development in the Asia Pacific.

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