What Asia expects from UN commissioner of human rights

DERWIN PEREIRA of the Foreign Desk reports that the region hopes that the appointee will not impose Western views unilaterally.

A DEEP East-West gulf may have been narrowed when the United Nations General Assembly voted last month to create the post of a human rights commissioner. For the first time, both sides struck a deal on human rights.

The West created the post it lobbied for and preserved the freedom to make aid conditional on human rights performance. Asian countries succeeded in reducing the commissioner’s powers.

Both sides were on different grounds when the post was proposed last June at a UN conference in Vienna. The West, led by the United States, pushed for a watchdog figure but Asian countries like China and India had reservations. They wanted to be sure he would not undermine national sovereignty and would respect cultural differences.

Asia and human rights

Some observers have said that the post itself was a long time coming. After all, a universal Declaration of Human Rights has existed since 1948.

A referee of sorts was needed to shepherd recalcitrant nations, they said. But Cold War constraints hindered the UNs active promotion of human rights.

The Soviet Union’s demise and the end of its ideological battle with the US changed that, said Professor Louis Henkin, head of Columbia Universitys Center for Human Rights. “There has been a rise in human rights violations in many parts of the world which has only made it more important to have someone with the commissioner’s mandate,” he added.

In Asia, there is no doubt that governments take human rights very seriously now because they recognise it as an important political factor in international relations.

A Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs official, an expert on human rights and who was involved in the Vienna conference, said: “We see merit in having a human rights commissioner because this is an idea which is part of the agenda of international politics of our time.”

Indeed, a meeting of Asean Foreign Ministers in Singapore last July reaffirmed the need to balance the individual’s rights and those of the community. They stressed that violations should not be tolerated under any pretext.

A communique expressed a common Asean approach to this question for the first time and stressed on strengthening international cooperation on all aspects of human rights. The ministers agreed to consider setting up some sort of a regional mechanism to handle human rights issues.

An American ‘threat’?

The push for some sort of internationally acceptable standards has friends in high places. The Democratic administration in the US has made human rights the cornerstone of its foreign policy.

Some Asian nations see it as a weapon the US and some Western countries could use against them. Said Professor Michael Leifer of the London School of Economics and Political Science: “With the end of the Cold War, there seems to be a new moral imperative in international relations. There is a strong Asian sensitivity that this is a new form of colonialism.”

Such perceptions were reinforced in deliberations to create the post when the US broke rules agreed to earlier and tabled its text of a resolution on the issue. The agreement was the working group would consider only one text drawn up by its chairman, reflecting the views of all.

The US drew heavy criticism but dismissed fears it would abuse the commissioners post, stressing he would work at the behest of the 184-nation General Assembly.

West meets East

In a trade-off in the final text, Asian countries managed to limit the commissioner’s powers while the West preserved the freedom to make aid conditional on human rights performance.

The chairman’s text also said the commissioner could initiate “action for the dispatch of fact-finding missions with the consent of the state concerned”. Asian countries had the powers struck out.

Said Prof Henkin: “The mandate is weaker than what the US wanted. But one should not confuse a compromise on the language with one on the functions.”

There was nothing in the mandate that prevented the commissioner from knocking on the doors of governments. His reports may draw attention to potential abuses but may not compel or oblige governments to change. And he did not have any authority to force his way into a country.

Citadel of sovereignty

Malaysia and Indonesia had stressed in the deliberations that they were not opposed to protecting human rights. But they wanted to ensure that Western views were not imposed unilaterally, especially in situations where a countrys religion or culture tolerated different practices. Indonesia, speaking for itself and the Non-Aligned Movement which it currently chairs, argued the commissioner should respect the sovereignty, territorial integrity and the rights of jurisdiction of states in accordance with the UN Charter. He should “act … on the basis of the consent of the state concerned”.

This request highlighted the contradiction in the UN charter. It is based on a principle of non-interference and respect for state sovereignty. But it reflects international concern for human rights.

Diplomats and analysts argue that international law has evolved since the charter was drawn up. The notion that what happens within the state is not a concern of international diplomacy is a myth.

Said the Singapore Foreign Ministry official: “It is clear states can and do legitimately claim an interest in what happens in how other states treat their citizens. That said, it is still a world of sovereign states. So, there is a certain degree of inevitable tension.”

Mr Jusuf Wanandi of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a leading Indonesian think-tank, agreed and said this inherent dichotomy is more marked in Asia.

Its countries cherish sovereignty even more as they had just achieved it and were still in nation-building.

Some observers believe that in this region, China and Myanmar in particular would be more sensitive to a UN representative poking his nose in their domestic affairs.

China, already upset over the US linking of continuation of its Most Favoured Nation trade privileges with an improvement in human rights practices, would not take kindly to a high commissioner adding to the pressure. Beijing has stressed constantly its government and people are the best judges of what constitutes human rights for the Chinese.

Mr Ali Alatas, Foreign Minister of Indonesia, did not see the commissioner’s reports as a threat to any country’s integrity.

Asked how Indonesia would respond if, for example, the commissioner took it to task on the East Timor issue, he said: “He will be free to raise matters but we will be free to explain to him when we think he is wrong.”

Whither the commissioner?

Diplomats believe much would depend on his personal and political skills. They argue he could not be overtly ideological. He had to be pragmatic as he was part of the UN system which operates on the basis of consensus.

Certainly, having a UN official accountable to the General Assembly helps take out the sense that human rights is anti-Muslim, anti-Asian or something that the Americans only talk about.

His challenge will be to balance the inherent dichotomy between the right of states to be masters of their destiny and international efforts to promote human rights.

Said Mr Alatas: “It has always been difficult to draw the line between the two. We have put down markers and we have described the commissioner’s mandate in very clear terms.

“That is as far as we can go. We will now have to watch how he performs.”

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