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AIHRC: A step for Asia, but with little direction

Southeast Asia has officially joined the ranks of Europe, the Americas, and Africa in launching their own regional human rights commission.  Speculation on the proposed human rights body for The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has dominated political commentary in the region for the past year.  Yet, now that the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) has formally been inaugurated at the fifteenth ASEAN Summit held in Thailand this past weekend, more questions than answers remain.  

One of those questions is whether AICHR will be able to have any impact on human rights in the region given the limitations and member skepticism it is already facing.  An editorial in The Bangkok Post highlighted many of the problems facing the AICHR, including the almost complete lack of commissioners with any human rights credentials, the continuing prohibition by ASEAN of formal civil society participation, and the inability of the commission to investigate, sanction or otherwise punish human rights abusers.  These developments leave much to be desired from AICHR, particularly given the human rights problems that the region faces.  

These human rights issues have hurt the reputation of ASEAN over the years.  In particular, ASEAN’s weak track record on Burma despite its appalling human rights record has undermined its claims of progress and a genuine respect for human rights.  The apparent irony that a country with one of the worst human rights records in the world is now a member in good standing of a regional human rights body did not escape many observers this past weekend.  However, Burma is not the only member of ASEAN with human rights problems.  The Philippines is frequently criticised by the European Union and international human rights organizations for continuing issue of extra-judicial killings, while freedom of expression is largely absent in Singapore.  Cambodia has also come under fire for its intolerance for any form of political opposition, an issue that has been present since the 1960s, along with chronic religious persecution in neighboring Vietnam.  More recently, the violent breakup of protests in Malaysia demonstrated the continuing lack of some political freedoms there, while Thailand has found itself having to answer to abuses committed by its military against ethnic Rohingya asylum seekers from Burma who washed ashore.  This constant news cycle along with the financial crisis means that ASEAN needs a positive source of attention.  This was one of the reasons why the AICHR has finally come into being after years of being pushed by the Philippines, to no avail.  But by making the commission so toothless and being so deferential to member governments, it has attracted more criticism than praise in its first days.  

Regional human rights organizations can have a tremendous amount of power to bring about change as seen with the Inter-American system in the Americas, but they can also be made largely useless by their member states as is mostly the case with Africa; it remains to be seen whether the AIHRC is a step forward for Southeast Asia, or merely just a step.  However, after this weekend’s summit, the AIHRC has a lot more hearts and minds that it needs to win over before it will be seen as a credible addition to the regional human rights family.



Kimberly J. Curtis

Kimberly Curtis has a Master's degree in International Affairs and a Juris Doctor from American University in Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of The Women's Empowerment Institute of Cameroon and has worked for human rights organizations in Rwanda and the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @curtiskj

Areas of Focus: Transitional justice; Women's rights; Africa