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Gentlemen All

So the Good Leaders of ASEAN, the same people who thought it better for them to approve the ASEAN Charter before the people of ASEAN could even see it, have agreed on an ASEAN Human Rights Body. And like all new bodies that arrive in this world, this baby comes with no teeth.

In doing so, they successfully managed to ignore the mad ravings of Indonesia who, having broken free of the shackles of their own inglorious tradition of human rights violations, inexplicably wanted a way of actually putting an end to human rights violations. 

Arguing from the insane premise that there was no reason why human rights protection should be weaker in ASEAN than in the African Union or the Organization of American States (what on earth would such foreigners know about ASEAN human rights?), the Indonesians almost ripped to shreds the working consensus of ASEAN.
 
The ASEAN way is articulated through the 7 principles of the ASEAN Charter, that thing they so graciously approved for you so you wouldn’t have the bother. The first 3 of these principles, rightfully coming before any of that dreamy-eyed stuff about good governance, human rights and international humanitarian law, say this:
 
a) respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all ASEAN Member States;
b) non-interference in the internal affairs of ASEAN Member States;
c) respect for the right of every Member State to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion and coercion.
 
This is diplospeak for everybody pretending not to smell anyone else’s farts. In practical terms, it means if you’re ever strapped down in the non-existent CIA torture house in Sattahip with water pouring up your nostrils, ain’t nobody in ASEAN coming to your rescue.
 
But our song-and-dance-at-the-occupied-airport Foreign Minister thinks we’ve done enough. He is confident that ASEAN member states will ‘honour the commitment for the people of ASEAN to lead a better life’, according to press reports. 
 
“We will not commit any crime, so there should not be punishment but only a lot of achievement” says the man on the wrong end of a charge sheet that runs as far as terrorism. 
 
At this point, one’s eyes naturally drift towards the serial human rights abusers who run Burma through a system of intimidation, torture, and when that doesn’t work, mass murder. That lot don’t seem to respond to any pressure less than a sawn-off shotgun pressed against their forehead. Does anyone seriously think they are suddenly going to mend their ways because of this piece of paper?
 
But gross as the xenophobes in Naypyidaw may be, they are not the only human rights abusers in ASEAN in need of reform. 
 
Probowo Subianto headed the Kopassus in Indonesia and what became Timor Leste and was accused of involvement in torture, rape, extortion, kidnapping and murder. Removed from his red-beret command after daddy-in-law (Suharto) fell from power, he was charged with the heinous crime of ‘exceeding orders’, found guilty, but given no punishment. He then swanned about abroad as a bit of pariah (some of the time in Bangkok according to reports), before he resurfaced earlier this month as the losing vice-presidential candidate on the Megawati ticket. 
 
I’m sure we all hope this ASEAN document is helping him mend his ways. 
 
Malaysia’s Federal Reserve Unit are regularly accused of doofing people up. They tend to pick on the discriminated and defenceless but will occasionally batter an MP if need be (opposition MP of course). Vietnamese courts are happy to use Article 88 (conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam) to lock up any and all who the government disapproves of. Sleepy old Lao turns out to be quite nifty at arresting Christians and banging them up until they see the error of their religion. And on and on. It’s embarrassing to have to choose.
 
But all will be a thing of the past, says FM Kasit, just because of a mealy-mouthed packet of weasel words from Phuket
 
From small acorns, goes the argument by apologists from PM Abhisit to the local human rights people who have been watching this non-document evolve amidst much hand-wringing. What they have passed in Phuket is only the Terms of Reference of an ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, to be reviewed after 5 years. Start small, add teeth later; if the words aren’t as strong as we’d like, be creative in interpretation, says Acharn Vithit.
 
But this optimism flies in the face of the near universal experience with national human rights commissions in Asia. In the few cases where the commission wasn’t nobbled from the outset, most governments that found their HRC a mite feisty, such as was the case in Thailand, quickly learned to restrict, hamper, co-opt and neutralize, so that human rights ended up under the protection of some castrated eunuch of an organization.
 
I mean, I know Thailand once appointed a yellow-carded candidate to the Election Commission, but selecting a named human rights violator to the National Human Rights Commission? 

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