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Human Rights

Critics Slam ASEAN Rights Commission

Mudjayin holds up a copy of a document identifying him as a former political detainee. Credit: Kanis Dursin/IPS

JAKARTA, Nov 29 2012 (IPS) - At the age of 82, former Indonesian political detainee Mudjayin wonders if he will ever see justice served.

Back in 2010, he, along with other victims of state terror, submitted their case to the recently formed human rights commission of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Two years later, they have still not received official recognition of their complaint, suggesting that the rights body lacks the necessary power or political will to carry out its mandate.

“We have still not heard anything on what they did with our report,” said Mudjayin, one of tens of thousands of Indonesians rounded up by the military following the coup attempt on Sep. 30, 1965 that saw seven army generals killed.

The army blamed that abortive coup on the Indonesian Communist Party and embarked on a campaign of mass killings, which, in the following days and weeks, led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of alleged communists.

That bloody chapter in Indonesia’s history also saw the rise of Suharto as the architect of the ‘New Order’ dictatorial regime, which held power for more than three decades.

Speaking to IPS at his house in Tebet, South Jakarta, Mudjayin recalled that he was arrested without a warrant in October, 1965 and held for 14 years as a Class B detainee – meaning that no evidence to link him with the Indonesian Communist Party or the September coup had ever been established – without ever being formally charged and tried.

He was finally released in 1979, but did not demand justice until after former president Suharto stepped down in May 1998 amid massive public protests.

Aided by rights groups such as the National Committee for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), Mudjayin and other former political detainees have been seeking justice for over a decade, to no avail.

The creation of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) in 2009, the first regional rights body of an organisation that had traditionally avoided addressing issues that were seen as domestic internal matters, provided him a fresh channel through which to seek redress for his wrongful imprisonment.

Mudjayin was joined by parents and relatives of students shot dead during anti-government protests in Indonesia in 1998 and 1999, relatives of pro-democracy activists kidnapped in 1997 and 1998, relatives of 32 journalists slain in the southern Philippine province of Maguindanao in 1999, and some human rights victims from Burma.

At the time the complaint was submitted, all 10 rights commissioners representing each of the ASEAN member countries – Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – were in Jakarta to attend their first official meeting after being appointed in October 2009.

But none showed up to meet the victims, let alone to receive their complaint, Mudjayin recalled.

A limited mandate

According to Indonesian Human Rights Commissioner Rafendi Djamin, “We (AICHR) are not mandated to deal with individual claims.”

Set up in October 2009, AICHR is tasked with promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms of ASEAN peoples, enhancing regional cooperation on the promotion and protection of human rights, and upholding international human rights standards.

Rights defenders in Southeast Asia hailed the foundation of the Commission but have lamented its limited power to carry out its own mandate.

“AICHR has been given very weak terms of reference that limit its mandates, authority and powers to promote and protect human rights,” said Yap Swee Seng, executive director of the Bangkok-based Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development.

The commission’s effectiveness was further undermined when “some member states appointed government officials to the commission as their representatives, rather than independent human rights experts”, he continued.

Now, eight of the ten commissioners are government officials or diplomats. The only two independent experts are Indonesia’s Djamin, a human rights activist, and Thailand’s Sriprapha Petcharamesree, an academic.

This development has rendered the commission “institutionally problematic”, according to Kontras Coordinator Haris Azhar. “The fact that AICHR reports to the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) indicates that the commission is not independent and that it serves as an auxiliary body to AMM,” Azhar said.

Proponents of the rights body such as Danny Chian Siong Lee, director of community affairs development in the ASEAN secretariat based here in the Indonesian capital, lauded the Commission’s efforts vis-à-vis the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, which was adopted at the organisation’s summit in Cambodia earlier this month.

The declaration lists civil and political rights; economic, social and cultural rights; the right to development and the right to peace.

But this, too, has been the topic of much debate among Southeast Asia’s rights activists, who have criticised the draft as being too weak and setting standards that fall short of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

For Rena Herdiyani of the Women’s Crisis Centre ‘Mitra Perempuan’, the inclusion of the right to development is the document’s only saving grace, “making it different from the Universal Declaration on Human Rights”, she said.

But she also called attention to the declaration’s caveat that “the realisation of human rights must be considered in the regional and national context bearing in mind different political, economic, legal, social, cultural, historical and religious backgrounds”, making the exercise of fundamental rights highly subjective.

Further, the declaration “does not protect the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people or the rights of indigenous people”, Herdiyani added.

Yap criticised the commission’s lack of transparency. “The performance of AICHR in the first two years (2010 to 2011) has been unfortunately very poor, marked by an extreme lack of transparency and consultation with stakeholders in the process as well as the content of its work,” he said.

“This has been illustrated by the non-disclosure of any documents that the AICHR has adopted since its establishment in 2009, including its annual report to the ASEAN foreign ministers in 2011,” Yap added.

He also called on ASEAN to review AICHR’s terms of reference to make it truly independent with the necessary mandates and powers. “The ASEAN member states also need to provide adequate resources and financial autonomy for the AICHR to function effectively,” Yap added.

And while the rights body confronts its teething troubles, people like Mudjayin continue to wait for justice.

*This story was produced through IPS Asia-Pacific’s ‘Reporting Development in ASEAN‘series, made possible by the support of the International Development Research Centre.

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