ASEAN and human rights: Worrying attempts to control civil society

Press release

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) expresses its deep concern at attempts by several member states of the ASEAN to undermine independent civil society participation in the dialogue session to take place with ASEAN leaders on 23 October 2009.

More than 500 civil society representatives from the ten ASEAN countries gathered for three days in Chaam, Thailand, ahead of the ASEAN Summit which will bring together the highest states’ representatives from those countries at the end of this week. These civil society meetings, called ASEAN Peoples’ Forum (APF/ACSC), take place ahead of each ASEAN Summit and discuss possible proposals and recommendations for the Summit. For the first time, the October 2009 edition of the APF/ACSC was conceived as a dialogue with officials from the ASEAN countries, however invited officials did not attend.

The Asean Peoples’ Forum appoints one civil society representative per country to meet with ASEAN officials and relay concerns raised by NGOs during the three days of civil society meeting. FIDH notes that NGOs should be able to decide independently who will represent them in this dialogue with States’ representatives. However, some ASEAN countries – Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam in particular - have been trying to influence this decision-making process by imposing government-controlled « NGOs » as their interlocutors in that dialogue. Malaysia, in its attempt to disregard the process of civil society organisations at the APF, proposed a member of its human rights commission. In response, the Malaysian delegation at the APF issued a strong press release condemning the proposal.

«We are extremely concerned by this move: it shows how certain ASEAN states do not tolerate independent civil society and do not understand its fundamental role in any democracy. Civil society must be able to express criticism of governmental policies or to make proposals to improve the positive impact of policies on people’s lives; a genuine people-centered ASEAN will necessarily involve dialogue with independent civil society groups», said Souhayr Belhassen, President of FIDH.

FIDH urges the governments to put an immediate end to attempts to interfere with the independent appointments of NGOs from their countries in the 23 October dialogue with ASEAN leaders.

This week’s Summit is crucial in the history of ASEAN as it will decide the composition of the newly-established ASEAN Inter-Governmental Human Rights Commission, a body which will promote respect of human rights in the region.

FIDH calls upon governments who have not yet appointed their representative for this Commission to do so through an open and transparent process, and to appoint those known for their independence and their background in human rights. « We urge ASEAN countries to follow the path of Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, who appointed personalities with a strong human rights background as their representatives in the new ASEAN human rights body », added Ms. Cynthia Gabriel, Vice-President of FIDH. « How governments of countries like Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam will behave in the coming days will be crucial for the future of the ASEAN human rights policy. It is still time to reverse the trend », she concluded.

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