Address by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the 7th Official Meeting of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights

Monday 28th November, 10.30am

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen.

It is with great pleasure that I address you here today at the start of the seventh official meeting of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) in beautiful Bali. I would like to thank you for this invitation, and the Government of the Republic of Indonesia for facilitating my visit.

ASEAN has taken significant steps in recent years to bring the issue of human rights into its community building project. The creation of your Commission, as a regional body to advance our common and fundamental human rights and the first of its kind in this region, is testament to this commitment.

The member states of ASEAN have recognised that reform and renewal is necessary to adapt to a changing regional environment and maintain the relevance of ASEAN both regionally and on the world stage. It has been encouraging to see that human rights has become an integral part of this vision, with the ASEAN Charter specifying that the promotion and protection of human right is an underlying purpose and fundamental principle of the organisation.

As the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, I am always reminding States that, while it is important to make a commitment to human rights, it is the actual implementation of the commitments that is most important. I have therefore been impressed by the determination with which the member states of ASEAN have transformed this commitment into tangible institutions, and that within three years of the adoption of the ASEAN Charter in December 2008, two ASEAN human rights mechanisms have already been established.

In this world of 24 hour news and Twitter, it is all too easy to lose sight of how quickly ASEAN has moved in introducing these institutional reforms. But the momentum must be maintained, as the credibility of the new ASEAN institutions will depend on their ability to keep pace with developments in the broader human rights world and deliver meaningful benefits to the people of this region.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen

My Office recognises the importance of supporting ASEAN in this process of reform, particularly in relation to the development of its human rights mechanisms. Functioning and effective regional human rights mechanisms are an integral part of the human rights architecture, complementing and supporting the work of national and international human rights systems.

Today we see dynamic and effective regional mechanisms in place in Africa, the Americas and Europe, and emerging in the Arab and Islamic world. These regional arrangements can help to reinforce national protection systems and assist national governments in the implementation of their international human rights obligations. They can provide individuals with a more accessible forum for redress than the international human rights bodies.

Regional arrangements can help to articulate human rights concepts in a way that draws upon local social and cultural traditions and can provide a source of regional wisdom and experience in the development of new human rights standards. They can help to better address regional and transnational human rights concerns, such as migration, trafficking or the impacts of climate change. Finally, they can help to promote peace and security by promoting a people-centred sense of regional community that reinforces and does not undermine national sovereignty.

I am pleased with the fruitful relationship of trust and confidence that has developed between OHCHR’s Regional Office in Bangkok and ASEAN in the area of human rights. OHCHR stands ready to assist the work of AICHR through technical assistance as you implement your mandate and five year workplan. This includes support for the strengthening of the AICHR secretariat and the provision of resource persons and materials for human rights training programmes instigated by AICHR.

As you discussed with Homayoun and colleagues in Vientiane last July, we would also like to continue to connect AICHR to other regions of the world, so that lessons can be learned and best practices shared. We also offer to support AICHR in becoming an integral part of the discussions that take place at the international level, such as the biennial seminars mandated by the Human Rights Council which seek to identify ways and means to strengthen cooperation between the UN and regional mechanisms.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen

One of the most important tasks that AICHR is currently engaged in is the drafting of an ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, which will set the tone for the emerging ASEAN human rights system. I hope this Declaration will be firmly based on universal human rights standards as contained in international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the very least, regional human rights instruments must maintain international human rights standards, and at their best they can enrich these standards, for instance by focussing on new areas such as the rights of the older persons or the responsibilities of business in relation to human rights. I will be interested to hear from you today about the issues you are grappling with in drafting this important document.

My Office will do all it can to support ASEAN in the drafting of the Declaration, such as the expert consultation that AICHR will hold later this week. But I also encourage ASEAN to be more open to consultation with a wider range of national institutions and civil society groups from the region than has occurred so far. One of the keys to the success of other regional mechanisms has been their positive engagement with civil society, and I very much hope AICHR too will open its doors to benefit from their ideas and energy. A good example of this was the engagement with civil society in developing the recent statement on disability issued at the ASEAN summit this year.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to meet with national institutions and civil society groups from across the region, to hear their interests and concerns as they engage in support of the ASEAN institutions. This region is blessed with a very energetic and sophisticated civil society. They supported and welcomed the establishment of AICHR and want to contribute positively to its development. However they are frustrated by being unable to meet with you formally, to access your documents and to be consulted in your initiatives. I sat on a panel with your chairperson Rafendi and I am conscious that some of you are reaching out in different ways, but it is important that such consultation is deepened, broadened and institutionalised. It would also be beneficial to increase the transparency of your proceedings, by publishing your annual report and other key documents on the AICHR website. I will be very interested to hear from you today your strategies in this regard.

We recognise that ASEAN is at the beginning of an evolving process. Like those in other regions, ASEAN’s human rights mechanisms will develop in the years to come, and we must be careful to encourage and support this evolution and change. But I must impress on you 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, you as members of AICHR and the governments you represent will be judged by what you achieve and the degree to which it aligns with other regional mechanisms and international standards.

Over the past few years, I have been giving the same message to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva as it grapples with its own evolving role and working methods. I am pleased to have seen the Council rise to the new challenges presented by the Arab Spring, and to become more responsive to human rights crises. It will be very important for you too to show tangible achievements and creative applications of AICHR’s mandate by the time the first review of AICHR takes place in 2014.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen

Each region of the world has its unique cultures, traditions, institutions and histories. But what is common to all the regions is an aspiration for democracy, the rule of law and human rights. I am pleased to see that ASEAN recognises this and has started on an ambitious programme of reform and institution building to realise these aspirations for all its people. OHCHR stands ready to support ASEAN and AICHR in these efforts, and to work together to advance the promotion and protection of human rights throughout the world.