ASEAN Day: Increasing interest in torture prevention

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Association of South East Asian Nations, ASEAN, was established on 8 August 1967 to represent the member states’ will to enhance friendship and cooperation. After 47 years, has the time come to reach a regional consensus and collective understanding also on the importance of prohibiting and preventing torture?

In 2009, ASEAN established an Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights to promote human rights in its ten member states. By mid-2012, the Commission had drafted the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, in a process that lacked transparency and participation from the civil society community in the region.

The Declaration, adopted by ASEAN members in November 2012, was perceived by many as a diluted and weak document. Others saw the establishment of a human rights body and document in the ASEAN region as a first step in an evolving process.

Despite the rocky start in institutionalising human rights, ASEAN member states have recently showed a greater interest in the United Nations’ Convention against Torture (UNCAT) and its Optional Protocol. Existing state parties to the UNCAT, such as the Philippines and Cambodia, have ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention (in 2007 and 2012). Vietnam signed the UNCAT at the end of 2013 and has committed to ratify it soon. Thailand has announced its intention to ratify the OPCAT sometime next year and in the Philippines and Indonesia there are ongoing discussions on the establishment of National Preventive Mechanisms.

Evolving role of NHRIs

In addition to the increasing motivation among states to adopt international standards to prohibit and prevent torture, the emerging role and mandate of National Human Rights Institutions in the region cannot be ignored. The most recently established NHRI in the region would be the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC). The MNHRC Act 2014, recently passed by the parliament, signifies some innovative approaches to the NHRI’s mandate. Apart from the common roles of an NHRI, the law also empowers the Commission to invoke existing criminal procedures and laws in conducting national inquiries. Such progress is warmly welcomed as the NHRIs are key national institutions in torture prevention. 

Another positive development is the participation of Indonesia in the recently launched Convention against Torture Initiative, together with Chile, Denmark, Ghana and Morocco. This is a strong recognition from the international community of the region’s potential to be part of the global movement against torture.

Moving forward

The encouraging developments should serve as a good start for a more cohesive cooperation and framework of action among ASEAN states to condemn torture. During the Jakarta Human Rights Dialogue in 2013, some of the key recommendations focused on strengthening torture prevention through regional exchanges and dialogue, sharing of best practices, capacity building and building resources and practical guidelines, relevant to an ASEAN context.

The AICHR can provide a constructive and safe forum for ASEAN states to realize these significant recommendations. It has a crucial role in ensuring that public discussions and dialogue on torture prevention will continue to flourish among ASEAN members. As the AICHR’s terms of reference is currently up for review, this opportunity should not only be considered for empowering the body with a stronger mandate in human rights protection but also in playing a more effective role for nurturing better awareness and respect for human rights in the region.

This would further advance the objective “to strengthen democracy, enhance good governance and the rule of law, and to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms”, as envisaged in ASEAN’s roadmap towards community building in 2015.