By Pravit Rojanaphruk
The Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), created in 2009, has largely failed to promote and protect human rights in the region in any meaningful way, many delegates to a civil society workshop in Jakarta have concluded.
The meeting, on strengthening AICHR's mandate on protection, was organised by a number of NGOs.
Problems with the commission included serious allegations that AICHR was becoming a shield for Asean to deflect world scrutiny from its troubling human rights record.
Other criticism ranged from most Asean government's choosing their own conservative people to be AICHR representatives, and the lack of a secretariat and budget.
While some believed AICHR should be done away with altogether to spend time on something more concrete, others said the nascent body should be given time to evolve in a positive manner.
In 2014, said Rafendi Djamin, Indonesia's representative and chair of AICHR, speaking as a national representative, the Terms of Reference of AICHR would be reviewed in order to strengthen the mandate to protect and promote human rights.
In the meantime, Djamin admitted many flaws existed. First, he said some national representatives to AICHR don't want to meet with civil society organisations - except those they think like them. Djamin said only he and Thailand's representative Sripapha Petchmesri had been trying to make AICHR more effective and credible.
"Until now, AICHR has never [held a] conference. Why? I cannot impose on AICHR members to meet the media [and will] leave it for others to judge."
Some states, said Djamin, do not want to hear AICHR use the term "female domestic workers" and insisted that AICHR look at them as part of a larger vulnerable group in order not to call attention to the issue.
Cambodia's NGO activist Nay Vanda alleged that in Malaysia, woman migrant workers from Cambodia are being "raped and forced to use drugs". Meanwhile, the human rights situation in Cambodia, according to Vanda, is such that the state "doesn't allow [people] to express their pain and sufferings", adding an ominous note that "I don't know if I can talk forever".
Singaporean political activist Sinapan Sammydorai from Think Centre said although freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Singaporean charter, the reality is different.
Sammydorai said a single person staging a protest in Singapore would be arrested. On the issue of foreign "maids", they are automatically expelled if found pregnant. "These are maids," he said, making a distinction between the word and that of 'domestic helpers'.
"They don't have a right to a day off, [people insist] they'll get pregnant [if given a day off]."
He also argued that when information about the Singaporean government becomes truly transparent, people will one day know where the corruption is.
In a larger context, Sammydorai recalled a statistic which stated that only 56 per cent of Asean workers are employed in the formal sector and thus have little or no job and social security, a "disgraceful" fact.
A Filipino participant expressed hope that some representatives to AICHR would change: "They are going to be tired of being window dressers for Asean. I am waiting for the time that AICHR representatives can recommend real recommendations."
Speakers said suggestions about AICHR's reform has become a small industry, complete with meetings and jargon incomprehensible to most educated people outside the circle. And there's no sign that it would end or change anytime soon.
Boonthan Veerawongse, from the Thai Working Group for Asean Human Rights Mechanism, suggested that a secretariat be created somewhere and that AICHR representatives not be under the authority of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Then some workshop participants went off to yet another international meeting on the issue, at yet another nice hotel located in Jakarta.