BALI / GENEVA (28 November 2011) – The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said Monday that the next two years will be crucial to the development of regional and national human rights institutions in the ASEAN region, particularly in the light of developments under way in Myanmar, which will chair ASEAN in 2014.
Pillay has spent the last three days on the Indonesian island of Bali meeting the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), National Human Rights Institutions from four of the ten ASEAN countries* and a broad range of civil society organizations. While in Bali, she also spoke by telephone with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, on a range of issues including Myanmar’s forthcoming chairmanship of ASEAN.
“One element that emerged very clearly from the meetings and discussions that I had are that the next couple of years will be crucial if the advancement of human rights is to gather pace in this region,” Pillay said.
Pillay commended Indonesia’s “very positive” approach to human rights during its 2011 chairmanship of ASEAN and AICHR (which was created in 2009 with a broad mandate to promote human rights), and its vice-chairmanship of a second human rights body, the ASEAN Commission for Women and Children.
“These regional human rights bodies are still young, but I hope and believe they will develop in the years to come, and we must be careful to encourage this evolution,” she said. “It is important to sustain the momentum generated by the very welcome creation of these bodies, and it is now time to start shifting up through the gears.”
Earlier, in the first ever address by a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to AICHR, she noted that “the aspirations and expectations outside this room are high – in civil society, the media, among ASEAN’s international partners and, most importantly, among ordinary people.” At the end of the day, she added AICHR Commissioners – and the governments they represent – “will be judged by what they achieve,” how their work compares with regional bodies elsewhere in the world and whether or not it is in line with international standards.
“It will be very important to show tangible achievements and creative applications of AICHR’s mandate by the time the first review of AIHCR takes place in 2014,” the High Commissioner said.
Pillay noted that a number of concerns had been raised by around 75 delegates, representing 40 civil society organizations from nine of the ten ASEAN countries, with whom she held several hours of discussions on Sunday. “The number one concern,” she said, “was that AICHR – as a body — is not talking to civil society, although there have been some contacts with the current chairperson and one or two other Commissioners in their individual capacity. That is a major concern to me as well. No discussion of human rights can be complete or credible without significant input from civil society and national human rights institutions.”
The UN human rights chief also urged AICHR to listen to civil society calls for more transparency, particularly with regard to the forthcoming ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, due to be finalized by the end of the year. “This is potentially a very important document which may set the tone for years to come,” Pillay said. “And I can understand civil society organizations’ extreme frustration that they have not even been able to contribute to the drafting of the declaration, or been adequately consulted on its contents. This is happening against the backdrop of some significant changes, for instance the new political dynamics that seem to be developing in Myanmar and the reform of draconian national security laws elsewhere in the region. At the same time, freedom of expression continues to be threatened in many countries and increasing religious intolerance has placed pressure on women and minorities.”
Noting the intense spotlight that will be focused on ASEAN’s progress on human rights in 2014, when the first review of AICHR takes place under the Chairmanship of Myanmar, the High Commissioner said she had discussed this and other related issues with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi at the weekend.
“We covered a range of issues in Myanmar, including recent encouraging developments such as the release of some political prisoners and the creation of the national human rights commission,” Pillay said. “Aung San Suu Kyi has always been a tremendously inspirational figure when it comes to the promotion of human rights and democracy. I am encouraged by the fact that the Government of Myanmar, and in particular the President, have started a dialogue with her. Nevertheless, we both agreed that there is still a very long way to go.”
Pillay said that Myanmar would need to be making significant progress in a number of key areas by the time it takes over the Chair of ASEAN and its human rights subsidiaries in two years time.
“Aung San Suu Kyi informed me that she believes the number of political prisoners remaining in detention is probably around 600, although there may be others her party is not aware of,” Pillay said. “I join her in her desire to see all political prisoners released in the very near future.”
Pillay said she and Aung San Suu Kyi discussed a number of other key issues where demonstrable progress would be needed by 2014.
“Perhaps most fundamentally, significant moves towards establishing the rule of law are key to halting the serious human rights violations taking place in Myanmar,” the High Commissioner said. “For the outside world to be sure this is happening, there will need to be a system of independent human rights monitoring across the country, including in remote conflict-affected areas, and there needs to be a major effort to resolve the conflicts themselves, and the underlying issues that fuel them.”
“During my talks with the four existing ASEAN National Human Rights Institutions, and with Aung San Suu Kyi, we agreed it was important to engage with the fifth national human rights institution created in Myanmar in September. It will inevitably require time and support to establish the independence and credibility it needs to be fully accepted on both the national and international stages.”
Pillay also said the next round of by-elections will provide a further indication of how quickly progress is being made. “In addition to the conduct of the next elections, the Government needs to encourage the development of independence: independent civil society organizations, independent media and a truly independent National Human Rights Commission,” she said.
“Aung San Suu Kyi was cautiously optimistic,” Pillay added. “I share her optimism — and her caution. We should not underestimate the magnitude of the tasks that lie ahead for the Government, people and institutions of Myanmar as they develop their much-needed reforms. I pledge to do everything I and my office can to help transform the recent positive signals and tentative advances into substantial and irreversible progress.”
Pillay noted, as another encouraging sign, that staff from her Regional Office in Bangkok were invited to carry out human rights training for a wide range of government officials from various ministries in November. “The feedback was encouraging,” she said. “These officials, many of them from an emerging younger generation, were very positive, interested, energized. Both the human rights training, and its enthusiastic reception, would not have been permitted only a couple of years ago.”
(*) The four ASEAN states with internationally recognized National Human Rights Institutions are Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.
Learn more about the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/AboutUs/Pages/HighCommissioner.aspx
For more information on the UN Human Rights office mandate and work: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Pages/WelcomePage.aspx
For more information on human rights in the Asia-Pacific region: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/AsiaRegion/Pages/AsiaRegionIndex.aspx
- Myanmar Opposition Party to Make Decision on Re-entry to Political System (nytimes.com)
- The Situation in Myanmar is not without Hope (dinmerican.wordpress.com)
- Military-dominated Myanmar to chair ASEAN in 2014 (hosted2.ap.org)
- Obama expanding diplomatic relations with Burma (hotair.com)