Regional Regime for Human Rights?

In a belated attempt to address human rights issues, ASEAN took up the 1993 Vienna Declaration and Program of Action proposal "to consider the possibility of establishing regional and subregional arrangements for the promotion and protection of human rights" (Thio, 1999: 19). In practice, the ASEAN states chose to establish the less problematic national human rights commissions instead, Malaysia being the latest to have done so after Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand. Because of the political turmoil and transformation in Indonesia, its Human Rights Commission has been forced to play an important role in addressing problems.

The ASEAN foreign ministers in 1998 finally acknowledged its own decision of 1993 to establish an informal non-governmental "Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism". So far, this working group has had a series of workshops, meetings and dialogues with ASEAN officials in 1997, 1998 and 1999 but nothing concrete has emanated from the discussions (Thio, 1999: 22). Thio comments, "At present, ASEAN states maintain an ambiguous stance towards human rights, accepting that they are matters of international concern, although asserting that international standards are to be interpreted and applied as they see fit in accordance with national human rights arrangements but its content to take a back seat in this respect". (p. 30).

The failure of most ASEAN states to ratify UN covenants and conventions on human rights is indicative of this lukewarm view of human rights. Only Cambodia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam are signatories to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights while Cambodia, Philippines and Vietnam are signatories to the Convenient on Economic, Social an Cultural Rights. The other ASEAN countries have been prepared only to ratify the less exacting conventions. Furthermore, the attitude shown toward UN Special Rapporteurs investigating matters pertaining to human rights has been far from encouraging.

From the foregoing discussion, our sobering and grim conclusion is that most of the Southeast Asian states have yet to come around to the idea that human rights issues and problems, including the "third generation" issues of the right to security, survival and safe environments and sustainable development, will constitute the most salient new dimensions of human rights in the region. It is likely that Southeast Asian instruments for dealing with human rights issues will remain inadequate and that more global or wider regional --such as Asia-Pacific -- mechanisms and regimes may be employed to address these issues instead. Such a development may further attenuate ASEAN's slide into ineffectualness as a broad regional structure for instituting a regional human rights regime.