Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Human rights and lame ducks

It was announced last week that ASEAN will launch its human rights body in October this year, after a high-level panel has finished preparing the terms of reference setting out its mandate and responsibilities.

Human rights NGOs have been pressurising ASEAN leaders to give this human rights body—the first of its kind in the Asian region—real powers to protect human rights defenders. A regional mechanism mandated to investigate individual complaints of human rights violations would be hugely significant, even if it took many years for it to become effective and properly fulfill its mandate.

But according to Ambassador Rosario Manalo, head of the high-level panel, the ASEAN human rights body will not initially possess any investigative power though she hopes that it will “evolve” such capabilities. “You don't change societies in the wink of an eye,” she said. “We are still grappling with what 'human rights' really is.”

This much is true, and the struggle for an effective regional human rights mechanism was never going to be easy. After living in Singapore and Bangkok, it became clear to me that ‘human rights’ do not mean exactly the same as what they mean in a British context. I understand human rights as the outcome of a particular worldview; one that asserts that humans are humans first, and everything else second. We are born equal, and differences of religion, class, nationality or gender do not change that fact.

However, ‘human rights’ in many Asian societies are the outcome of different worldviews and societal developments. They are more likely to be understood as a useful tool in the struggle against authoritarian leaders and oppressive governments. They may also be used to challenge harmful patriarchal traditions, to fight against dispossession caused by mining or logging, or to assert the desire to determine one’s own sexual identity.

What tends to surprise the western observer is the disconnect between these different struggles. It’s quite common, as one colleague noted, to find a human rights defender risking his life protesting against the Burmese military regime, but at the same time having nothing progressive to say on LGBT rights.

A more subtle example can be found in my Thai co-worker, a fellow intern in the Human Rights Defenders programme. He told me that in Thailand, it is commonly believed that people are born gay or transgender because they committed ‘sexual sins’ in a past life. I was somewhat taken aback by this: to me, the idea that any kind of LGBT identity is a punishment for former wrongdoing goes against the premise of equality underlying human rights. Well, he said, we don’t deny them their right to be gay—since they are born that way, we accept it.

It is true that this attitude prevents the ‘corrective’ kind of approach taken by some of the more loony Christian organisations, and does promote a general acceptance of diversity. But it is an acceptance premised on inequality, so that while the result appears the same, the root is very different. Acceptance of sexual rights in Britain or the US is grounded in a conception of all humans as equal; acceptance of sexual rights in Thailand is based on the perception that hierarchy is inevitable.

It is the ‘universal’ aspect of universal human rights that is missing here. This has the effect of weakening all specific claims made in the name of human rights by presenting them as the sole property of certain special interest groups. If human rights defenders themselves use human rights selectively—utilising the language to achieve goals that are specific to each local context or group—then demands for an ASEAN human rights body that embodies the notion of universal human rights are undermined.

Given this disconnect, it is easy to see why those like Manalo argue that ASEAN countries are simply not ready for a strong regional human rights body. But is a lame duck of a mechanism really preferable to a strong one that takes time and effort to fulfill its potential?

After all, what is being proposed is really little more than a watchdog focusing on human rights promotion and education rather than protection. Increasing awareness of human rights issues within ASEAN countries is supposed to lead eventually to these countries “internalizing” humanist values, in turn creating the necessary pressure for more substantial reform.

But in fact, it just lets authoritarian regimes and military juntas off the hook. No leaders will be losing sleep over such an anaemic institution. When Manalo says there is no political will to create an ASEAN human rights body with teeth, she undermines the political will of the hundreds of organisations and individuals across the region already crying out for precisely that. And without greater attention to regional NGOs and regional inter-governmental institutions, the universalisation of human rights as a worldview in itself will continue to be stymied.

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