Mid-July saw ASEAN sink to unprecedented depths when leaders failed to issue a joint communiqué at its latest Ministerial Meeting in Cambodia because of disagreement over reference to the South China Sea dispute with China. Unsurprisingly, the Indonesian foreign minister called this latest roadblock to “ASEAN consensus” “utterly irresponsible”.
ASEAN consensus focuses on agreement among the governments of member states instead of consensus with the population. It routinely avoids and even suppresses public participation in key debates and initiatives relevant to the public interest. Nowhere is this more evident than the process of drafting an ASEAN human rights declaration.
The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) is tasked with drafting the declaration, but has done this largely behind tightly closed doors. Limited consultations with civil society organizations have been held in some member states, and at no point was a draft published, leaving the public and human rights groups in the dark. There has only been one formal consultation at the regional level, but participation has been heavily restricted and the draft declaration was not published.
That human rights defenders and their organizations have made every effort to comment and provide recommendations on a text that they have never seen is a testament to their commitment to promote international human rights standards. The same cannot be said of AICHR and the governments to whom it reports.
Om Yentieng, a high-level Cambodian official and his country’s representative to AICHR, told reporters in June that “NGOs want to write [the declaration] instead of us, but they don’t know their duties.” He went on to say that the declaration “is for all 800 million ASEAN people, so if those 800 million people want to help, in 800 million years we will not be able to finish it.”
Om overestimated the total population in ASEAN by about 200 million. His apparent faulty statistic aside, the condescending comment reveals a bigger problem — ASEAN’s tendency to talk about a people-centered community without actually enabling the people to participate meaningfully in issues that affect their lives.
After receiving the latest draft of the declaration, some ASEAN foreign ministers wished to see AICHR consult with “all stakeholders in ASEAN, including civic society and sectoral bodies of the group, to listen to their opinions on the matters.” Outgoing ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan also waded into the issue by encouraging “more openness”. But AICHR has not announced any further consultations. The foreign ministers also announced their intention to publish only “key elements” of the draft but refused to release it in full on the grounds that it has not been finalized.
The inherent absurdity that a document can simultaneously be open for consultation but cannot be seen in full until it is no longer possible to change it appears to be lost on ASEAN. The most likely explanation of this chronic allergy to transparency is that there are some regressive elements in the declaration.
Some commissioners on AICHR have reassured rights groups that the declaration would not go below international standards, but many, especially countless victims of human rights violations, would find it difficult to take them at their word.
During AICHR’s existence, it has refused to comment or even acknowledge the arbitrary detention and persecution of many peaceful activists, journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders in most ASEAN member states, made possible by draconian laws that clearly contravene international human rights standards. How can anyone be confident that similar repressive elements have not been embedded into the declaration?
It is now crunch time for ASEAN. It can make the right decision to publish the draft declaration and then conduct broad-based consultations at both the national and regional level. Or it could continue tumbling towards irrelevance and becoming a laughing stock in the international human rights community.
The writer is deputy secretary-general of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).