A cyclist on a country road in Vietnam. There is a long way to go regarding observing human rights in Asia.
Photo: Olof Sandkull/Sida
Asian human rights commissions form united front
Unlike other continents, Asia currently lacks an established regional mechanism to observe human rights. Since 1996, the Asia Pacific Forum (APF) has filled this void and given its members, the state human rights commissions, a common platform and a unified voice. With one foot in the UN and the other in the civil society’s grassroots organizations, the APF acts as a link between the local and global organizations for its 14 members.
Olof Sandkull, senior programme manager for Sida’s support for the APF, says: “The Asia Pacific Forum is for its members. The regional cooperation offers human rights commissions in various countries a network that helps them learn from each other’s experiences through training, capacity development and exchanging information.”
Authoritarian traditions limit independence
Although the APF has managed to raise human rights on the political agenda through its members, the concept of human rights is still met with much scepticism. Many countries still lack the political desire to contribute towards real change for marginalized groups. The commissions are often opposed by governments and their mandates to run independent investigations are regularly restricted.
“There is a suspicion about human rights among the political elite in large parts of Asia,” Sandkull says. “They see them as a threat to the established power structures. For example, there are attempts to try to get round the independent appointment of human rights commissioners to exercise greater control and limit the commission’s influence.”
The APF rests on clear and basic principles, and, when its members’ ability to work independently is restricted, the organization takes action. One controversy surrounding the appointment process of new commissioners in Sri Lanka in 2007 provides a telling example. The Sri Lankan president sidestepped the usual process and took it upon himself to appoint candidates. The APF immediately criticised the action, and, when there was a lack of opposition to the appointments, Sri Lanka’s membership of the organization was downgraded to associate membership.
Human rights a regional concern
The work for human rights often demands diplomatic tact. When Western representatives emphasize the importance of human rights in Asia, it often falls on deaf ears. The APF’s methods illustrate the added value and the legitimacy that regional cooperation can bring. By bringing its members closer to each other, the APF promotes the exchange of ideas with a local stamp, rooted in close-lying examples that are easier to relate to and harder to dismiss.
“The Asia Pacific Forum has managed to keep a very strategic and constructive profile, which has given them great credibility in the region,” Sandkull says. “They use culturally adapted strategies to bring about cooperation or to establish new human rights commissions. Then they use their own members to help them.”
Facts –APF full members
- New Zealand
- Palestinian Territory
- The Philippines
- South Korea
- East Timor