Eyes wide shut

I wrote this on 10 September 2018 as part of the requirements in a human rights graduate class I was attending.

Last month, the UN released a damning report accusing the Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw, of committing genocide, rape, and torture against the Rohingya people, one of the most persecuted minority groups in the world. The attacks forcibly displaced almost one million Rohingya, with many enduring added suffering in refugee camps in Bangladesh. Myanmar’s State Councillor, erstwhile democracy leader and Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, was also criticized for failing to use her power to stop the atrocities being committed by the Tatmadaw. And while the Myanmar government has rejected the UN findings and denied the allegations, the report has garnered support from governments and civil society organizations.

Amidst, however, all the criticisms being lobbed at the Myanmar government and the Tatmadaw, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) stands out, not for its support of the findings but, rather, for its silence. It has failed, quite spectacularly, at protecting the human rights of Southeast Asia’s peoples.

The AICHR was created by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2009 as a response to pressures exerted on the ASEAN by social movements in countries in the region and by international bodies and organizations working on human rights. The creation of the AICHR and the human rights declaration that followed a couple of years after has been viewed by some as a victory for human rights in a region with governments that, for the most part, have not exactly been champions of human rights.

That victory, however, appears to be an empty one.

Since its inception, the AICHR has failed to significantly pressure the Myanmar government to desist from committing human rights violations against the Rohingya people. It has repeatedly avoided voicing out concerns on the issue and efforts to raise the question in several AICHR and even ASEAN meetings were met with strict opposition from member countries. But the Rohingya crisis is just one of the many human rights issues that have come up in the Southeast Asia. The killings of activists and those resulting from Duterte’s brutal “anti-drug” war in the Philippines, the continuing martial law and denial of fundamental freedoms in Thailand under Chan-Ocha, the increasing attacks on LGBTQ peoples in Indonesia and Malaysia, and the crackdown on the right to expression and assembly in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Singapore have all gone largely unnoticed–or, rather, deliberately ignored–by the body that is supposed to actively “defend and protect human rights” in the region.

There are several reasons why the AICHR is so successful in doing everything but defend and protect human rights. First, the AICHR is institutionally problematic. Its powers are quite limited, and there are no procedures in place for receiving complaints and investigating abuses. The AICHR employs no independent experts who can produce objective reports on human rights issues; AICHR country representatives are mostly government officials who are more concerned with diplomatic language and protecting their respective country’s reputations than actually doing their job of promoting human rights. There is very limited space for civil society involvement, and what space is there is forcibly shrunk further by rules the AICHR imposes. The AICHR acts more like an old boys club than a venue for redress of human rights violations, with representatives patting each other on the back for a job well-done while turning a blind eye on abuses happening right in their backyards.

AICHR also has a policy of non-interference, one that many of the abusive governments in the region are more than happy to comply with. With this policy in place, abuses can be glossed over and treated as internal matters, and everybody is asked to look away. The non-interference clause often acts as a deterrent from raising human rights issues not just in AICHR activities but also ASEAN ones as well. Defenders of this provision often equate non-interference with respect for a nation’s sovereignty, yet while it is true that a nation’s sovereignty should be respected, the clause is often used to shield countries from criticisms, inquiries, and investigations. In other words, one cannot criticize what one is not allowed to talk about.

And should any complaint manage to hurdle the non-interference clause, it would have to face the consensus-building decision-making method of AICHR, definitely a sure-fire way for any country to shoot down any hint of a suggestion of human rights investigations. This particularly problematic way of making decisions gives countries who have something to hide the ability to hold the AICHR hostage to inaction, something that the commission is particularly good at, anyway.

While this is not to say that the AICHR is irrelevant, the institution has also failed to make itself more relevant in a region that is seeing an intensification of attacks on its people’s fundamental rights and freedoms. The Rohingya crisis in Myanmar will definitely not be the last major human rights issue the commission will face, what with the current trend of intensifying violations of human rights in the region.

But until the AICHR gains the ability to actually do its job of defending human rights, it will only be able to view human rights violations with its eyes wide shut. ###

The above photo is from Bangladesh’s The Daily Sun.