ASEAN and Human Rights: Closing the Implementation Gap

22 October 2009

Tomorrow, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is set to launch the first regional human rights mechanism in the Asia-Pacific region, to be known as the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR). There is much hope and expectation surrounding this occasion, as it represents an important commitment by states in the region to move beyond mere words and towards the implementation of their human rights commitments on the ground.

Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the international community has been relatively successful in coming to an agreement on what human rights are and the concomitant obligations they create for states. The ongoing challenge lies in establishing effective human rights mechanisms, ranging from commissions to courts, which can turn these noble ideas into reality.

It is at the regional level, namely in Africa, Europe and the Americas, that the most effective mechanisms have been established to close the human rights implementation gap. States in each of these areas recognised that regional human rights mechanisms formed an integral part of their vision to build a more peaceful, stable and prosperous regional community. Leaders realised that focusing on relations between states was not enough, and that relations between states and the people within their borders also needed to be addressed.

Establishing human rights mechanisms at a more localised level not only places them in closer proximity to the people who need to access them. Doing so also enables these mechanisms to operate within, and simultaneously address human rights issues which arise from local historical, cultural and geographical circumstances. The development of credible and effective regional human rights mechanisms, however, does take time. It requires the engagement of civil society and national human rights institutions from below, the initiative of the commissioners from within, and the political will of Member States from above.

Experience has shown how regional mechanisms can improve upon mechanisms and instruments at the global level. For instance, in the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, concerns regarding economic and social rights, such as the right to food, health and education, meant that these rights were treated as equally open to legal protection as civil and political rights. This left human rights mechanisms at the global level playing catch up, with an Optional Protocol only adopted last year enabling the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to consider individual complaints.

For its part, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has expanded significantly from its humble beginnings in 1959. Its original mandate of a convening forum soon evolved into a mandate to conduct on-site country visits, as commissioners used their initiative to travel the country and meet with people from all walks of life. By 1965, the Commission was granted the authority by the member states of the Organisation of American States to investigate and decide on individual complaints. Fourteen years later, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights had been established alongside the Commission to provide legally binding decisions on individual cases of alleged human rights violations.

Despite their very different paths of development, the regional human rights mechanisms in Africa, the Americas and Europe today share certain common features. These features include regional human rights instruments that reflect international standards; commissioners who are independent and impartial experts in human rights; mandates which enable the mechanisms to do both promotion and protection work; competent and full-time secretariats with sufficient resources; their own rules of procedure, which include rules for interaction with both civil society and national human rights institutions; and cooperation with international human rights mechanisms.

As ASEAN pursues its ASEAN Vision 2020, now moved forward to 2015, to create a “community of caring societies” with “focus on the welfare and dignity of the human person and the good of the community”, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights will have to work hard to establish itself as a credible regional mechanism and help close the gap between human rights rhetoric and the reality on the ground.



Homayoun Alizadeh
Regional Representative
OHCHR Regional Office for South-East Asia