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At the End of The First International Conference on Human Rights in Southeast Asia: Regional Human Rights - Success or Challenges?

The First International Conference on Human Rights in Southeast Asia organized by the Southeast Asian Human Rights Scholars’ Network (SEAHRN) was successfully conducted on 14 and 15 October 2010. The Conference opened with a keynote address delivered by Dr Surin Pitsuwan. Dr Surin spoke of how human rights were at different stages of evolution in the region. In ASEAN many countries still see the individual in the context of the community and thus individual human rights as a concept has yet to be fully embraced. However with the governments of ASEAN signing the ASEAN Charter which calls for the promotion and protection of human rights, we are now moving ahead.

To quote Dr Surin; “Those who toy with the rhetoric of human rights and democracy will have to live up to the standards of human rights and democracy in the end – it is just a question of how long it will take”

If ASEAN is to embrace with conviction human rights then it is up to the people and civil society, to push the aspirations found in the ASEAN Charter in order to speed up the evolutionary process.

The first plenary panel entitled “Southeast Asia and Human Rights” consisted of Vitit Muntarbhon, Carlos Medina and Azmi Sharom. Professor Vitit gave a comprehensive overview on human rights in the region, pointing out the progress made and the areas where development is still required in eight criteria; institutional mechanism, laws, policies, practices, resources, monitoring, education and empowerment. He closed with a statement that despite the complaint that ASEAN and the newly formed ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) lack teeth, it has to be remembered that it still has “lips” and thus can still voice out human rights concerns and in this way push the agenda forward.

Carlos Medina discussed the processes in ASEAN through which human rights is developed. He gave a historical perspective on how human rights was put into the ASEAN agenda by activists using the ASEAN organizational structure and he closed with the point that working within and outside of the ASEAN system can bring about good results and thus ought to continue. Azmi Sharom called for an ASEAN human rights treaty which can then oblige national governments to ensure that human rights concerns are absorbed into domestic law.

The second plenary session was held in the morning of the 15th and was entitled”Sexuality and Human Rights”. King Oey and Danton Remoto presented papers about the situation in Indonesia and the Philippines respectively. While the Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Transgendered (GLBT) community in Indonesia is facing sometimes violent opposition mainly from the extremist Islamic groups; in the Philippines progress has been made with the creation of the Ang Ladlad party which means that for the first time anywhere there is a political party specifically created to campaign for and stand on the platform of GLBT rights. George Hwang spoke of inserting GLBT rights in Singapore through the method of Corporate Social Responsibility and Khartini Slamah made an impassioned plea for the need to protect the right of the GLBT community to be true to themselves.

The concurrent sessions have been very interesting, wide ranging and well attended. There were four parallel sessions, each with seven concurrent panels. The topics covered included human rights in the context of armed conflict and self determination; religion; indigenous peoples; women; marginalized and vulnerable communities; rule of law; state violence; economics; environment; education; media and more.

The Conference closed with a keynote address by Mary Shanthi Dairiam who gave a speech picking up from themes raised by Dr Surin and challenging certain concepts. She reiterated that the universality of human rights is an international norm and in some cases international customs and to think that ASEAN can develop at its own pace without taking into consideration the international community’s collective responsibility to human rights is a fallacy. She also challenged the distinction between group and individual rights, pointing out that although rights may be formally recognized for groups, it is individuals who will claim them. Finally, the idea that the denial of human rights is a passive act is wrong for in denying someone their rights one is indeed actively protecting someone else, namely the perpetrator of the rights violation.

Shanthi closed by looking forward as to what needs to be done in this region. ASEAN has to move beyond mere promotion of human rights into the active protecting of human rights for without protection, promotion is unsustainable.   Thematic studies ought to be conducted in order to establish indicators of good human rights practices against which the nations of ASEAN can be judged. There has to be proactive measures to make the ASEAN mechanism meaningful in the implementation of human rights ideals otherwise the evolution of human rights in the region will simply be not good enough.

It is important that a conference like this is held as the state of human rights in the region is diverse and embryonic. This conference provided a forum where intellectual foundations for the development of human rights in ASEAN can be developed and refined. It was also a setting where academia could mingle with civil society with each learning from the other. The three hundred and fifty participants have made this Conference a lively and successful one.

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