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Rule of Lords: Beware of ASEAN rights diplomacy

Last Friday, 10 civil society representatives learned the hard way what a new Asian regional human rights initiative is really all about.

The 10 had expected to meet leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, one representing each country in the grouping, for a chat prior to the launch of the Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.

But the night before, officials from the Foreign Ministry of Thailand -- where the event was being held -- said that only five would be allowed through the door. When the five arrived at the venue, officials told them that they could not open their mouths.

Welcome to human rights dialogue, ASEAN style.

In a statement, the spurned activists said that the move was “a rejection of both civil society and the democratic process” that “sabotages the credibility” of the new commission. Media reports cited other groups as “bashing” and “deriding” the body.

All this seems to be much ado about nothing.

It was obvious from the start that the purpose of the new ASEAN body is not to protect human rights. Its purpose is the exact opposite.

ASEAN has created the Intergovernmental Commission so that member governments and their own ineffectual rights institutions can push complaints of abuses outside their borders. There they can be professionally watered down and run through various “channels” and “mechanisms” until the original point is forgotten and frustrated complainants give up.

Although the commission is not intended to promote rights, it is aiming to promote members’ campaigns for seats on prestigious international bodies, like the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Thailand has already announced that it will bid for the peak U.N. rights body next year. Its current ambassador to the council was government spokesman when former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s administration was enabling the murder of thousands of alleged drug dealers in 2003.

In his new improved role as ASEAN human rights defender, the ambassador has been working on the intergovernmental body, perhaps with the expectancy of a better seat at the big hall in Geneva.

That these governments are working hard on their human rights diplomacy for reasons other than human rights is unsurprising. That civil society groups have been suckered into the diplomacy agenda is unfortunate.

Not only has it proven to be a complete waste of time and money, but also it is damaging to the defense of human rights in Asia.

Human rights diplomacy causes groups to lose touch with the real work of human rights advocacy. Diplomacy obliges negotiation and compromise. It is the stuff of closed doors and secret handshakes. By contrast, advocacy means standing firm on principles. It is necessarily public and open.

Rights diplomats fear to speak out because they might step on officials’ toes or risk their status with fellow diplomats. They sacrifice their ability to communicate on critically important issues on the streets in order to keep their cherished places at the table.

This is why, for instance, some groups have failed to speak out against the use of the lèse majesté law to silence and imprison people in Thailand, when in principle they ought to have not even hesitated.

Rights diplomats may flatter themselves into thinking that they can make progress through quiet negotiating, as if they were concluding a trade agreement or making an arms deal, but the fact is that this method is inimical to the real work of defending human rights.

This is because the single most important purpose of human rights advocacy is to break open silences and challenge taboos that allow abuses to continue. The work of human rights is to end the censorship of debate on problems that cause violations to persist.

Censorship can only be broken through advocacy. Human rights diplomacy, by contrast, not only reinforces censorship but also forces its participants to engage in self-censorship.

Persons who engage in self-censorship on the pretence of dialogue should expect little sympathy later when they find that they have been made victims of their own attempts at diplomacy, and then cry out that they have been unfairly treated.

But hopefully they will have learned an important lesson, that human rights diplomacy and human rights advocacy are incompatible. Anyone opting to engage in the former can only do so at the cost of giving up on the latter. And to give up on the latter ultimately means to give up on human rights.


(Awzar Thi is the pen name of a member of the Asian Human Rights Commission with over 15 years of experience as an advocate of human rights and the rule of law in Thailand and Burma. His Rule of Lords blog can be read at



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