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UN human rights review is largely toothless – but it’s giving a boost to Asian civil society groups

Recommendations that aren’t accepted tend to involve hard political issues related to civil and political liberties. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

UN human rights review is largely toothless – but it’s giving a boost to Asian civil society groups

A United Nations initiative reviewing human rights records of countries around the world is indirectly strengthening civil society organisations in Southeast Asia by allowing them to participate in the process. But the groups are still blocked from ensuring human rights are meaningfully protected in their countries.

The UN General Assembly established its Human Rights Council and introduced the universal periodic review of the human rights situation in member countries in 2006. The ten Southeast Asian countries that make up ASEAN – Brunei Darussalam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam – have now undergone two cycles of review, while a few remaining nations are awaiting the second round.

Under the process, states report to the commission every four-and-a-half years and receive its recommendations. Reviews focus on the evolution of human rights in that state, and its implementation of previous recommendations. The state under review may either “accept” or “note” the suggestions.

Recommendations that states tend to accept are those around improving gender equality, accessibility for those with disabilities, and children’s rights, which has gained particular prominence during the review.

Recommendations that aren’t as acceptable tend to involve hard political issues related to civil and political liberties. Unsurprisingly, it’s usually the latter that are detailed in submissions by civil society organisations.

A role for civil society

Civil society participation in the universal periodic review of ASEAN countries has increased markedly over the two cycles. Some 592 such organisations participated in the first cycle in 2008-2012, with 188 submissions; the second cycle (2012-2016) saw a strong increase, with 811 groups submitting 310 reports (personal, unpublished research).

The rise has put civil society groups at the centre of the UN human rights improvement process. But this isn’t the first time such groups have been at the heart of human rights advocacy in the region.

Civil society groups, such as the coalition known as the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism, helped push individual countries to join the 2009 ASEAN Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), and the 2012 ASEAN Declaration on Human Rights.

But since the establishment of the AICHR, civil society has disappeared from the process. Instead, the commission follows a secretive peer-review process in which such groups have no formal role.

Although AICHR is supposed to be engaged in human rights promotion and protection work, in reality it is unable to provide any actual protection. It is not mandated to receive complaints on human rights abuses, and does not have the power to investigate and hold perpetrators accountable. In fact, the bulk of AICHR activities revolve around meetings, discussions and research that have a consensual approach.

Similarly, national human rights institutions also cannot realistically contribute to the region’s protection arsenal. Research shows that, just like the AICHR, national institutions are not able to perform their protection function effectively.

These weak mechanisms raise the question of whether national human rights institutions in Southeast Asia can fill the protection gap. They also make human rights protection in the region weak, and in dire need of improvement and enhancement.

The AICHR follows a secretive peer-review process in which civil society groups have no formal role. REUTERS/Erik de Castro

Given the weakness of AICHR and national human rights institutions, engagement with the universal periodic review is critical to the advancement of human rights in Southeast Asia.

Being clever about it

Since the establishment of the universal periodic review process, civil society groups in the region have been receiving training, preparing submissions, and even making their way to Geneva. In 2015, for instance, five civil society groups from Singapore went on a trip to Switzerland to discuss human rights in the city-state.

Civil society groups have become involved in monitoring state recommendations and their implementation, as well as speaking on the review process itself. Many have attracted international donor funding and support for this work. US-based The Carter Center, for instance, has published a document titled Universal Periodic Review: Training Manual for Civil Society.

While states in the region espouse the rhetoric of engagement with civil society groups over the review process, they are, at the same time, cautious of them.

Governments often only pay lip service to human rights mechanisms and the periodic review is no different. This issue was raised in 2015 by local civil society groups against the Laos government, over the disappearance of activist Sombath Somphone and persecution of Lao Christians.

Overall it seems that states favour the current arrangement because they can use it to control the participation of civil society organisations in the process. They can create legal obstructions, target organisations, place restrictions on civil society activities, and harass and intimidate activists.

In a 2015 report, civil society body CIVICUS discussed cases from Cambodia, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam, in which governments have responded with misinformation, arranged for voluminous submissions by government-organised NGOs, and conducted consultations only with partisan groups, while refusing to work with civil society groups that are more critical of government policy.

Some have enrolled supportive organisations to speak during sessions at the adoption of the working group report by the commission. While others, such as Vietnam, have objected to the granting of consultative status to some NGOs.

Nonetheless, for Southeast Asian civil society groups, the review has been an effective mechanism for putting human rights issues on the agenda and engaging their governments in conversation about critical issues, such as LGBTI rights in Indonesia.

But systemic problems remain for engaging others. These include following up on recommendations and the review’s ability to address difficult political issues, such as the lese majeste law in Thailand, which forbids citizens from defaming or insulting the kind, and other freedom of expression issues.

To have the review make a real impact, civil society organisations will need to think about what they’ve been doing and develop more strategic approaches for the third cycle, which begins in 2017. They will need to go beyond coalition-building and organising submissions to determining how they can make human rights protections actually enforceable.

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