Total Reform Is Needed to Make AICHR Independent, Effective and Relevant to the ASEAN Peoples

(Bangkok, 26 April 2012) The performance of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) has been disappointing and wanting, epitomized by the lack of transparency, failure to consult with civil society organizations and no demonstrable progress in protecting and promoting human rights, according to a civil society assessment report on the performance of the AICHR for the period of October 2010 to December 2011.

The report, titled “A Commission Shrouded in Secrecy”, was released jointly today by the Solidarity for Asian People’s Advocacy Task Force on ASEAN and Human Rights (SAPA TFAHR) and the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA).

The civil society coalition said a total reform is needed if the AICHR is to become more independent from the governments, more effective in responding to human rights violations and more relevant to the needs of the peoples in the region.

The report revealed that AICHR has systematically failed to make public any of the official documents adopted since its inception in 2009. This includes its first annual report, which was submitted to the 44th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in July 2011.

Other official AICHR documents that have not been made public include the Guidelines on Operations of the AICHR, the Terms of Reference of the Drafting Group of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, the Terms of Reference of the Baseline Study on Corporate Social Responsibility and Human Rights in ASEAN, the Rules of Procedure for the AICHR Fund, the first annual report of the AICHR, the AICHR Work Plan 2013-2015, its 2012 Priority Programme and its budget, and the Terms of Reference of the Thematic Study of the Right to Peace.

“We are extremely concerned that AICHR has not even made the draft ASEAN Human Rights Declaration available for public comments. It is ironic that the peoples in the region do not have the right to access a document that is supposed to protect their human rights,” said Yap Swee Seng, executive director of FORUM-ASIA during the launch of the report.

The report found that the AICHR has continued to refuse meetings with civil society organizations and national human rights institutions in the region despite numerous requests made.

The report further slammed the AICHR for discriminating against civil society organizations in Southeast Asia whom it refused to meet, but on the other hand did not hesitate to meet with a range of international civil society organizations, including Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International (AI), the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and Freedom House during its official visits to the United States and Europe.

“While we welcome the meetings between the AICHR with international human rights organizations and note that such engagements should be encouraged, the Commission’s refusal to meet with civil society organizations from its own region when it had no qualms in meeting with international civil society organizations is simply a practice of double standards,” stressed Chalida Tajaroensuk, executive director of People’s Empowerment Foundation of Thailand, a member of the SAPA TFAHR.

SAPA TFAHR first requested for a meeting with the AICHR during its first official meeting in March 2010. The request was rejected on the grounds that the AICHR had yet to establish its rules of procedure and therefore could not meet with civil society.  The performance report of AICHR shows that the Commission only granted meeting request from only a single civil society organization - the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism - ostensibly on the basis that they are listed as stakeholders recognized by ASEAN under Annex II of the ASEAN Charter.

The report also raised concern over the AICHR’s failures in concluding any of the studies that it has undertaken, in concretely responding to real human rights situations - either in the region generally or in specific member states - and most worryingly, failed to improve the human rights of even a single individual within the ASEAN regional, two years after its establishment.

The AICHR has identified three thematic issues for further study, namely migration, corporate social responsibility and human rights and the right to peace. So far, the terms of reference for these studies have not been made public. It was also expected to give its advisory opinion to the ASEAN member states on the issue of mandatory HIV test for migrant workers but to date has still failed to do so.

The report made numerous recommendations to the AICHR. Key among them are for the AICHR to be more transparent by publishing relevant documents, including the draft ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, via a dedicated website; and to institutionalize regular consultations at national and regional levels with key stakeholders, especially the civil society organizations, national human rights institutions and the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC).

“The AICHR must strive to improve its transparency and engagement with civil society in the coming years. Otherwise, it risks being an irrelevant body to the peoples in the region,” said Saowalak Thongkuay, Regional Development Office of the Disable Peoples’ International Asia Pacific.