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The Struggle to Uphold a Regional Human Rights Regime: The Winding Role of ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), interview with Abubakar Hara, by Carolina de Lima

The last ten years have been a time of change for the ASEAN countries. Since the implementation of the AICHR, countries in the region have had to adapt to human rights ideas to the detriment of what they have long claimed to be Asian Culture. Despite this, the bloc still receives many criticisms, since little is seen of practical action to ensure the maintenance of human rights in the region, which have been the target of steadily increasing violence and violation of such rights. In an attempt to respond to the criticisms the AICHR receives, Dr. Hara’s paper The Struggle to Uphold a Regional Human Rights Regime: The Winding Role of ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) published in the vol. 62, n. 1 of Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional analyzes the agency in the light of the theory of human rights regimes.

Based on the theory of human rights regimes, Dr. Hara makes use of the argument that human rights regimes can be classified in four different ways, namely: declaratory, promotional, implementation and enforcement. Currently, AICHR is classified as a promotional regime, which according to the author should be seen and understood as a development opportunity. Dr. Hara was interviewed by Carolina Condé, M.A. in International Relations, and member of RBPI’s team.

When addressing the AICHR and the implementation of what is called the Human Rights Regime you based your arguments on the concept of Universal Human Rights. However, throughout the text, you indicate that ASEAN member countries have used what they call Asian Culture to justify the absence of the Human Rights agenda in the bloc’s discussions. In your opinion, what led the member countries of the bloc to abandon this perspective and accept the so-called universalist ideas for the formation of AICHR?

In my opinion, there has been at least two main reasons why ASEAN adopt universal ideas of human rights. The first reason is the globalization of universal values of human rights. The socialization of human rights values carried out by various international institutions, and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) also goes to many countries, including countries with closed systems in ASEAN. By becoming a member of ASEAN, these authoritarian countries are included in the international social order and must adjust to the norms and procedures of relations, including in the case of human rights. In the context of globalization of human rights, they can no longer arbitrarily violate the human rights of their people, unless they have to deal with international pressure and even pressure from ASEAN member countries themselves, which are also affected by the international condemnation as fellow ASEAN members.

The second reason is that ASEAN countries did not wholly reject universal human rights when they claimed that they have their own ‘Asian Culture’. The way in which the Western countries promoted human rights, especially in the years after the Cold War, had caused a strong counter-reaction from these countries. For these countries, the issue of human rights is a matter of priority. They gave emphasize more on economic and cultural rights than on political rights. Political rights at first were often excluded because fears of rapid political change can disrupt the stability and development efforts undertaken. These countries want more gradual and controlled change than a dramatic change that causes many victims. To a certain degree, it can also be said that the claim that ASEAN countries have specific ‘Asian values’ that is different from ‘Western values’ is a tool for these authoritarian and oppressive regimes to justify power in front of their people. However, after all, Asian values experienced a crisis due to the emergence of economic and monetary crises in the late 1980s and now claims to Asian values rarely appear.

Although there is a need to understand the AICHR is still under construction, and it has achieved improvements in the past ten years, AICHR still lacks enforcement. Due to that, in a scenario of increase on human rights violation in Southeast Asia, what is AICHR practical role?

AICHR does have weak authority. In the agreed Term of Reference, this Commission has neither tooth to uphold human rights values nor power to criticize and reveal human rights issues that would embarrass ASEAN members. However, representatives of each country in the AICHR share their duties and experiences and make human rights dissemination programs to each member. They carry out mainstreaming activities related to the rights of women and children to their respective governments and countries. They conducted seminars and workshops to discuss the importance of human rights protection in Business, education, health, human trafficking, and other cross-border issues. Because of that in my paper, I analyze the development of ASEAN human rights, based on international regime theory. For now, the ASEAN Human Rights regime is a regime that is still in the level of promoting, socializing, and conducting education about the importance of human rights values. AICHR has not yet entered the level of implementation and enforcement human rights regime.

With the weak authority, AICHR practical roles conducted by its representatives have been related to promoting human rights issues by conducting workshops, seminars, and meetings with various organizations both non-government and government. AICHR makes it possible for countries that are reluctant to discuss human rights issues before, such as the Indochina countries that have just become ASEAN members, to discuss human rights. Some topics, such as the protection of women and children have become more actively promoted through AICHR. It also carried out the mainstreaming of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the implementation of the ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (ACTIP), the AICHR Thematic Study on Women Affected by Natural Disasters. The AICHR also has dialogues with the EU on human rights issues, primarily related to the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers.

When you outline the steps by which the Human Rights Regime passes, you indicate that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is one step ahead when compared to the ASEAN commission. Given the role of the IACHR, how can the AICHR be inspired by the American organization?

ASEAN needs to learn from other regional organizations, including the OAS, which has from the start, launched the IACHR. With various challenges, the IACHR, for example, already has an Inter-American Court of Human Rights which can prosecute human rights cases that cannot be resolved at the national level. Institutionally the IACHR is better prepared than AICHR. OAS also provides broad authority for the IACHR.

ASEAN for quite a long time is more like an informal organization. They have many meetings to build mutual understanding and habituation with each other. The decisions taken are general in nature and very weak in detail and implementation. ASEAN always decide on an issue through consensus and postpone each decision for an indefinite period until all member countries agree.

To a certain degree, with the launch of the ASEAN Charter, the AICHR and the ASEAN Declaration on Human Rights, ASEAN also began to step towards a rule-based organization. The OAS, as is known from the beginning, adopted basic human rights documents that must be taken by its members, such as the American Declaration of Rights and Duties of Man and the American Convention. IAHCR also has conventions relating to torture, the death penalty, violence against women, forced disappearance of persons, discrimination against persons with disabilities and economic, social and cultural rights. ASEAN also has some similar conventions, but it is very weak in its implementation. The IACHR experience is thus beneficial for AICHR. Some human rights activists and academics have increasingly echoed proposals regarding the establishment of the ASEAN human rights Court. In this case, the Inter-American Court and other regional courts such as in the African Union and European Union can be referred to as examples.

You mention that the transition from a promotion regime to an implementation one in AICHR is difficult because the ASEAN countries are reluctant to give AICHR more power. However, throughout the text you cite several achievements that the Commission has already achieved. With that in mind, do you believe that popular pressure in those countries might force a change in the AICHR Terms of Reference or are the governments’ still too strong and too controlling for that to happen?

I am rather pessimistic that the governments of ASEAN countries will give more power to the AICHR in the near future. They seem to be still comfortable with the existence of the AICHR and its activities so far. This commission can, in a sense, provide an answer to the allegation that ASEAN, as a regional organization, does not care about human rights issues that are getting worse in this region. For example, the AICHR helps overcome criticism that ASEAN does not care about human rights violations in Myanmar, by carrying out various activities to save refugees and to find ways to return them to Myanmar. With this fact, some ASEAN countries do not have the urgency to change the AICHR ToR. Some ASEAN countries that are quite progressive in upholding human rights may not object to the changes to the ToR, but because every ASEAN decision is always made with consensus, then changes to the ToR are still not possible in this short time. Pressure from various CSOs, activists, and academics has also not been so intense as to force ASEAN to change the ToR.

Read the article

Hara, Abubakar Eby. (2019). The struggle to uphold a regional human rights regime: the winding role of ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR). Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 62(1), e011. Epub July 29, 2019.https://dx.doi.org/10.1590/0034-7329201900111

About the authors

Abubakar Eby Hara – University of Jember – International Relations, Jember, Indonesia. (eby-hara.fisip@unej.ac.id).

Carolina de Lima – M.A. International Relations, Federal University of Santa Catarina.

How to cite this interview

Cite this article as: Editoria, "The Struggle to Uphold a Regional Human Rights Regime: The Winding Role of ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), interview with Abubakar Hara, by Carolina de Lima," in Revista Mundorama, 28/09/2019, https://mundorama.net/?p=26113.