Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Turning rhetoric into reality

Brave New World (The Star)
21 October 2010

'I am talking about we citizens using the Asean Charter as one of our tools in the fight for human rights, rule of law and democracy.'


YOU may have heard of the Asean Charter, it is a treaty signed by all the members of Asean and it formally confirms that Asean is an international entity.
This means that Asean as an organisation now has legal “personality” on the international stage.
It can make treaties with nations and other international bodies.
It has international rights and obligations and it is bound by international laws and principles.
All this time, Asean has never been officially an international entity in its own right. It was a loose coalition of various countries with no legal personality of its own.
You can imagine it like an informal club. A group of buddies get together and form a club.
They have rules and they do things according to those rules. However, the club was never registered with the Registrar of Societies, so the club itself did not have any legal personality.
Thus, if a member of the club does something wrong to you, you can sue the member but you can’t sue the club because legally, the club does not exist as an entity which has rights and obligations.
This was what Asean was before the Charter was signed. Alright, this may be really exciting to students of international law, but I guess that if you are not, and if you are still reading at this point, you are probably thinking of turning the page to see how Spider-man and Iron Man are faring in their fight with the Puppet Master.
Before you do, let me explain that the Charter may well have a profound impact on our lives.
The Charter has a set of principles and Asean and its members are obliged to act in accordance with those principles.
Two of those principles are:
> Adherence to the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional governance;
> Respect for fundamental freedom, the promotion and protection of human rights, and the promotion of social justice.
This means that our Government has agreed to live according to these principles.
Now, those with any knowledge of Asean would probably dismiss this document with a contemptuous wave of the hand, saying “Asean is weak and toothless and nothing will be done”.
There is plenty of justification in that cynicism for amongst the principles of the charter is also an emphatic confirmation that there will be no interference in the internal affairs of Asean members.
This is the famous “Asean way” in which they try hard not to step on each other’s toes, no matter how appalling the behaviour of their members.
But I am not thinking of Asean taking the initiative to make sure that the Malaysian government lives up to its principles.
I am talking about we citizens using this document as one of our tools in the fight for human rights, rule of law and democracy.
It is not interfering if we are campaigning within our countries. And campaign we must.
We must remind our government, no matter who they may be, that an international agreement has been signed, an international law has been agreed to, and it says that this government will abide to the principles of human rights, rule of law and democracy.
You can’t agree to such things and then pretend it does not exist.
Well, they may want to, but we can remind them that it does exist and we will push them to live up to those promises for they affect us the citizens.
Last week, there was an International Conference on Human Rights in South-east Asia, held by the South East Asian Human Rights Scholars Network (SEAHRN) in Bangkok. Dr Surin Pitsuwan, the Secretary General of Asean gave the opening keynote address and in it he said, “Those who toy with the rhetoric of human rights and democracy will have to live up to the standards of human rights and democracy in the end”.
Well, our government has been talking about it, let’s make sure that they don’t forget it and press them into turning the talk into something real.

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