IT WAS a crime that shocked the world. Fifty-seven people abducted and brutally killed, their bodies dumped in a mass grave on a hillside above the town of Ampatuan in Maguindanao in November 2009.
They had been traveling in a convoy to witness the filing of candidacy papers for a local politician when they were stopped by a group of about 100 armed men. The ambush was motivated by a long-standing political feud between members of the group and the ruling political family. Among the victims were 32 journalists. One of them was Joel Parcon.
Five months after the massacre, Parcon’s widow, Naomi, took part in a protest rally calling on the newly founded Association of South East Asian Nations Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) to assist them in seeking justice in the case and demanding that the Philippine government provide compensation for the victims. Naomi Parcon called on the AICHR to pressure member countries to ensure justice for human rights victims.
Her call was left unheeded. A spokesperson said the AICHR did not have the power to investigate individual claims. “Not yet,” he added apologetically. It was a telling comment.
The AICHR was formally inaugurated a month before the massacre in October 2009. It was the result of a year-long effort that followed the ratification of the Asean Charter, which transformed the 10-member group from a loose association into a legally bound union. The charter includes several provisions pledging the promotion and protection of human rights. It also calls for the establishment of a regional human rights body.
This was a big step forward for Asean. Established in 1967, its primary aims were regional stability and economic cooperation; human rights were not even mentioned at the time. To a large extent, this economy-first agenda remains dominant today. While insofar as human rights is concerned it includes some forward-looking nations, Asean also counts among its members some of the most oppressive governments in the world.
This week, the AICHR, meeting in Kuala Lumpur, is deciding on the formation and mandate of a task force to draft the Asean Human Rights Declaration. The significance of this project cannot be underestimated. This will be the first human rights declaration within Asia, the world’s largest and most populated continent. It has the potential to blaze a trail for other human rights instruments in Asia.
But for many human rights campaigners, the move evokes mixed feelings. Asean has had a poor record on human rights protection. Many of its members are fiercely protective of their sovereign rights and there has been a troubling tradition of a decision-making process that is opaque, non-inclusive and consensus-based.
Amnesty International is not opposed to shaping a human rights body based on consensus. What it opposes is the traditional Asean-style consensus of diplomats and governments searching for the lowest common denominator that would be palatable to some of the world’s worst human rights violators. Such a consensus results in vague, meaningless statements, carefully worded, generally phrased and watered-down so as to embarrass no one.
The type of consensus Amnesty International would like to see includes the views of people throughout the region, from politicians and political activists, via members of trade unions and women’s organizations to Internet bloggers and indigenous peoples—and much more. This type of consensus would result in an Asean Human Rights Declaration that reflects the standards developed by the international community over several decades.
The reason for this crucial point is simple: Asean’s women, men and children are, in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “born free and equal in dignity and rights, endowed with reason and conscience” just like people anywhere else. They are not the world’s second-class citizens, and they neither deserve nor should settle for second-class rights.
What happens next? The only thing worse than having no regional human rights declaration is having one riddled with restrictions, caveats, provisos and balancing acts. It is not difficult to imagine such a document emerging from Asean if some member states have their way. However, there are strong enough, and certainly dedicated enough, forces within Asean, and within the AICHR itself, working in the opposite direction for that dread to be tempered by a healthy dose of hope.
As the task force begins its work, it must reflect the values of the human rights instrument it is working to create. In drafting it, the task force should promote openness—closed backrooms are not the place to draft effective human rights documents.
The failure of the AICHR to help the relatives of the Ampatuan massacre was clearly disappointing, but it does not mean that it is doomed to fail. Rather, it should be a rallying point for Asean’s vibrant civil society and for others who have been working to promote and protect human rights in Southeast Asia. If the AICHR’s reaction to the victims of that massacre was a first step in the wrong direction, a strong, clear Human Rights Declaration fully reflecting universal human rights standards, would point the right way forward.
With the drafting of an Asean Human Rights Declaration, the tantalizing dream of having a real and effective human rights protection system in Asean, able to frame, enshrine and enforce human rights legislation, policies and practices may be one step closer to becoming a reality. The challenge ahead is to turn “Not yet” into “Right now.”
Donna Jean Guest is deputy director of Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Program.