Malaysian NGOs discuss ASEAN Human Rights at National Workshop
By Yu Ren Chung, 28 August 2012
Last month, close to 40 Malaysian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) gathered for a two-day workshop in Petaling Jaya to talk about ASEAN human rights mechanisms, amidst a growing spotlight on the issue.
ASEAN has historically focused on economic growth and political stability, but in the pursuit to build an “integrated and people-centred ASEAN community” by 2015, political leaders of the 10-member state body have in recent years begun to delve into human rights. But what we have seen thus far has not been promising; poor human rights standards have been accompanied by secrecy and restricted civil society participation.
The workshop (the Coalition of Malaysian NGOs in the UPR Process (COMANGO) Workshop on UPR and ASEAN) was coordinated by four human rights NGOs: Dignity International, Empower, SUARAM, and Women’s Aid Organisation, with support from the Southeast Asia Women’s Caucus on ASEAN and Forum-Asia. It was also a platform for NGOs to prepare for the 2013 Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process.
Finding relevance in ASEAN human rights mechanisms
Human rights in the ASEAN framework is a relatively new development – the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) was created in 2009 and the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) in 2010, following the creation of the ASEAN Charter in 2007 – and some Malaysian NGOs are still testing the waters.
Adrian Pereira, Programme Coordinator with international human rights group Dignity International, pointed out that of the more than 1,200 participants at the 2012 ASEAN People’s Forum, a gathering of civil society organisations from ASEAN member states held yearly since 2005, only five were from Malaysia. Only Brunei had a lower representation. Participation in previous forums has also been similarly low among Malaysian NGOs.
Several participants noted that it is sometimes hard to relate their day-to-day work with international human rights mechanisms. This has perhaps curbed NGO enthusiasm. Sparse victories like the Malaysian High Court decision in the Noorfadilla Ahmad Saikin case, which invoked the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and declared that the Ministry of Education had unlawfully discriminated against a woman on the basis of pregnancy, continue to build interest, as has the urgency surrounding the drafting of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration this year.
Still, engaging ASEAN human rights mechanisms is not as straightforward compared to United Nations mechanisms like UPR and CEDAW which have periodic reporting requirements and processes for NGO involvement. The ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, set to be adopted in November this year, is not law-binding (perhaps for the better given some of its potentially regressive provisions), and there is no institutionalised process for NGOs to meaningfully engage with the ASEAN human rights bodies. Worse, NGO work is actively undermined. During the 2012 ASEAN People’s Forum in Cambodia, the Cambodian Government coordinated a parallel “civil society” conference attended heavily by government-linked NGOs, or “GONGOs”.
But NGOs may not have a choice other than to engage with ASEAN, and the workshop enabled Malaysian NGOs from across the country to learn about and strategise around ASEAN human rights mechanisms. As Tan Jo Hann, Executive Director of human rights popular communications centre Pusat KOMAS, put it, “Sometimes it’s hard to see this being directly relevant to our work on the ground. But it is important – we wouldn’t be here otherwise.”
Collaboration between NGOs across issues and the country
NGOs working on various issues attended the workshop, including child rights, consumer rights, ecological conservation, freedom of expression, health, housing, indigenous peoples’ rights, migrant rights, refugee rights, religion, women’s human rights, and workers’ rights. There remains a need to engage NGOs working on environmental issues in future consultations – just one environmental organisation attended – as well as those working on development issues, which no participating organisation specialised in.
Getting representation from across the country also remains a challenge. Of the 40 odd NGOs, only four were from outside Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, including three from East Malaysia. Traveling across the country for a workshop takes up time and money, resources NGOs are loath to part with. But an effective strategy to engage regional mechanisms requires coordination between NGOs from across the country, and the participation from the three East Malaysian NGOs was invaluable.
June Rubis, Program Manager with Sabah-based Land Empowerment Animals People, noted “I appreciated the effort made to engage civil society in East Malaysia to ensure proper representation in these processes.”
The workshop was a rare chance for NGOs working across issues and the country to convene, not only to discuss ASEAN human rights mechanisms and the UPR, but also to exchange thoughts on a range of other issues and build community and momentum.
Ren Chung is a Programme Officer with Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO). He attended the workshop as an organiser and participant.