Mr. Marzuki Darusman,
Co-Chairperson, Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism

Tan Sri Abu Talib Othman
Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM)

Prof. Dr. Rahmat Mohammad,
Director, Centre for ASEAN Studies, UiTM

Distinguished Participants
Ladies and Gentlemen,

On behalf of the Government and people of Malaysia, I bid you all welcome to Kuala Lumpur and to this, the 5th Workshop on an ASEAN Regional Mechanism on Human Rights.

2. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is pleased to join the Working Group for the Establishment of an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism, Suruhanjaya Hak Asasi Manusia Malaysia (SUHAKAM) and the UiTM Centre for ASEAN Studies in hosting and organizing this Workshop.

3. In adopting the ASEAN Vision 2020 Statement at the ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur in 1997, ASEAN envisioned itself as a concert of Southeast Asian countries, outward looking, living in peace, stability and prosperity, bonded together in partnership in dynamic development and in a community of caring societies1. Nine years later, in 2005, again at its ASEAN Summit, the ASEAN Heads of State pronounced their commitment to the establishment of an ASEAN Charter which will serve as the legal and institutional framework for our community. A Charter which will, among other things, reaffirm the promotion of democracy, human rights and obligations, transparency and good governance in our ASEAN community. The formalisation of an ASEAN Charter augurs well for an ASEAN community of shared values.

4. For those of you who have been involved with the development of human rights in ASEAN, you would recall that it was here in 1993 that the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Organization (AIPO) put forth its Human Rights Declaration during the 14th General Assembly. This seminal statement recognized that the peoples of ASEAN realised that human beings cannot live alone but should be in harmony with one another to achieve complete fulfillment of their aspirations in a just society. The AIPO Declaration also asserted that it is the task and responsibility of the Member States to establish an appropriate regional mechanism on human rights.
Ladies and Gentlemen,

5. Allow me at this juncture to delve a little into the recent history of the promotion and protection of human rights, as I trust some of you present here today believe that the promotion of human rights is an idea and an ideal conjured and pursued by Western countries. The idea of the protection of human rights as a universal value crystallized following the end of World War II and the horrors perpetrated by Germany and Japan. The United Nations drafted a set of norms which were referred to as universal values on human rights. However, as an organisation which was made up of mostly western nations, the concept was meant only to apply universally to their citizens, wherever they may be. However, with the defeat of the erstwhile colonial masters, it was the subject nations which had demanded the protection and promotion of their rights as individuals and as entities to self-determination which drove the world to take the shape it is today.

6. The imperial powers gave up with little grace – they fought against the granting of independence with the kind of cruelty which made nonsense of their enunciation of universal human rights values. The peoples of developing countries initially fought for their civil and political rights; this was then followed by the fulfillment of their economic, social and cultural rights. In later years, the demand evolved into recognizing the international community’s duty to assist in fulfilling a country’s right to development.

7. In recent years, with more and more developing countries turning to their individual governments for the protection and promotion of their rights, western countries saw an opportunity to once again turn the international consensus on its head – development needs have once again been relegated to the back seat on the pretext that market economies and level playing fields would equalize the development opportunities and maximize the gains of countries hitherto impoverished and denuded of their natural resources.

8. Nevertheless, developing countries soldier on, developing in what we believe to be a mould which best serves our needs. Yes, we too believe in the universality of human rights, as we do in their inter-dependence and indivisibility. And so we believe that all human rights must be promoted, and promoted equally.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

9. In 1996, when the Working Group met for the very first time with ASEAN Foreign Ministers on the occasion of the 29th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) in Jakarta, the then Foreign Minister of Malaysia, Dato’ Abdullah Haji Ahmad Badawi, assured the Working Group that Malaysia, as incoming Chair of the 30th AMM, would be open for dialogue and consultation. He promised that the subject of a mechanism would be tabled in the agenda of the AMM to be hosted by Malaysia. He kept his word. Every year since then, the Working Group has met with ASEAN Senior Officials during the annual Ministerial Meetings.

10. The discussions between members of the Working Group and ASEAN Senior Officials have proved quite fruitful – the Vientiane Action Programme, adopted at Vientiane, Laos in 2004, specifically lists down Programme Areas on Human Rights, a number of which were culled directly from the Conclusions and Recommendations of the Working Group’s annual workshops. Since then, Government officials and the ASEAN Secretariat have been engaging civil society in a step-by-step “building-block” approach towards the establishment of an ASEAN regional mechanism on human rights.

11. National human rights commissions have also had a vital role to play in improving the situation of human rights in ASEAN. Until recently, national human rights commissions have focused most of their efforts to improving the domestic human rights situation, and largely remained in the background of efforts to establish a regional human rights mechanism. However, the four national human rights commissions in the ASEAN region have been increasing their networking in recent times, particularly since the adoption of the Vientiane Action Programme. The presence of SUHAKAM in the organizing committee of this workshop indicates that Malaysia’s own national human rights commission is now ready to join the team of other actors working to see the realisation of an ASEAN human rights mechanism.

12. When I opened the ASEAN Civil Society Conference in Shah Alam, held from 7 to 9 December last year, on the theme of “Building a Common Future Together”, I observed that the limits of the “ASEAN way” of consultation, confidence-building and conflict resolution are presently being tested and that while it has not been easy for the leaders of ASEAN to publicly address sensitive issues within and between States, we were not giving up hope. Within the Vientiane Action Programme, ASEAN Leaders have agreed that strategies for shaping and sharing norms between ASEAN countries should be outlined in order to contribute to building collective responsibilities and forming a standard or common adherence to norms of good conduct in a democratic, tolerant, participatory and open community, as a means of consolidating and strengthening ASEAN’s solidarity, cohesiveness and harmony. Guided by this, we will continue to persuade our associates in a manner that respects national sovereignty and integrity. I also observed then, and I think it bears repeating now, that an important milestone is to face the need for such a mechanism head-on.

13. Malaysia has been cognizant of the need for a regional mechanism and has been supportive of the initiative to establish one such mechanism. The Working Group’s tireless efforts for more than a decade have afforded its organisation respect and recognition, and have assured its workshops and activities attention and consideration. But even a decade ago when the Working Group could be described as fledgling, Malaysia was already aware of the importance of its initiative and endeavoured to be helpful. The United Nations General Assembly held a World Summit in September, wherein it adopted an Outcome Document which for the first time recognised that “development, peace and security and human rights are inter-linked and mutually reinforcing.” As part of the international consensus towards strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the world, the United Nations established a Human Rights Council, which replaced the much-maligned Commission on Human Rights. At this juncture, I would like to propose that in the same spirit of promoting and protecting human rights within ASEAN, a regional human rights mechanism be set up comprising States within the Grouping which are ready.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

14. I believe its establishment would create a positive ripple effect going through not just this region but continue to expand in an outward motion, hopefully impacting positively on those who have traditionally viewed ASEAN as an organisation worth emulating. ASEAN has been a beacon of hope to other developing countries, shining a light on the viability of regional cooperation among South-South countries, in particular those which share similar particularities as well as concerns. I trust ASEAN’s principle of “prosper thy neighbour” is an element that regional groups would do well to replicate, in particular to obviate the possibility or recurrence of failed States within a given region. Within ASEAN itself, I believe the mechanism, when established, would be able to render technical assistance to the remaining members to facilitate their speedy entry as part of the arrangement.

15. The Mechanism could be an avenue for developing and establishing programmes within ASEAN for mutual support and assistance in the development of a strategy for strengthening the rule of law, judiciary systems and legal infrastructure, contributing to effective and efficient civil services and good governance in public and private sectors.

16. Today, I join you in taking another important step towards realising the dream of an ASEAN human rights mechanism. I wish you a fruitful deliberation during your workshop.

Thank you.

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    ASEAN Vision 2020, Kuala Lumpur, 15 December 1997.