On October 23rd, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) officially inaugurated the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR). Amongst its purposes is to “to promote human rights within the regional context, bearing in mind national and regional particularities and mutual respect for different historical, cultural and religious backgrounds, and taking into account the balance between rights and responsibilities”. Amongst its mandates, on the other hand, is “to develop an ASEAN Human Rights Declaration with a view to establishing a framework for human rights cooperation through various ASEAN conventions and other instruments dealing with human rights”.
The creation of the AICHR was expectedly met with high hopes that ASEAN, amongst the most vibrant regional groupings today, would finally establish a regional human rights mechanism. While there was no illusion that this body would replicate the European Court of Human Rights overnight, it was at least expected that the body would prove to be somehow responsive to the human rights challenges in the region and at least have the competence to declare countries in breach of their human right obligations. ASEAN, after all, is home not just to some of the fastest growing economies in the world; but also to the most repressive regimes with Burma high up on the list, and Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore not far behind.
Because of high expectations for this newly created Commission, some relatives of victims of the infamous Ampatuan massacre in Maguindanao, filed the very first communication with the commission barely two months after the massacre. The massacre was widely reported worldwide because of its gruesome nature: the perpetrators killed all 58 victims in cold blood using high-powered firearms and attempted to bury all evidence of the massacre, both corpses and vehicles, in three holes dug by a back hoe in Sitio Masalai, Ampatuan Maguindanao. At least 32 of the victims were journalists, adding notoriety to the massacre as the single most deadly attack against journalists worldwide. The communication filed by 13 family members of slain journalists sought to declare the Philippines in breach of the right to life and freedom of the press when their loved ones, all journalists, were killed by at least 195 individuals, all of whom are state organs. By way of reliefs prayed for, the petitioners, led by a high school teacher, Noemi Parcon, asked for a declaration of breach a well as for the Philippine government to make reparations and to pay compensation.
The petition was filed with a sense of desperation. With the suspected perpetrators perceived to be very close allies of the Former Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the victims were fearful of a whitewash and a cover-up. This fear proved to be well founded since 10 months after the filing of the communication, Lakmudin Saliao, testified in court how the accused spent 400 Million pesos to cover-up the massacre. Human Rights Report would also conclude that the former President was at least partially responsible for the massacre because of her complicity.
As an advocacy tool, the petition was envisioned to trigger the development of a mechanism that would at least receive individual communications and declare breach of state obligations under human right law, at least in the manner by which the UN treaty monitoring bodies do. While these bodies issue only non-binding “views”, it was hoped that since no state would want to be declared to be in breach of a state obligation, that the declaration of breach by itself would be a remedy of sorts for those whose rights have been violated. Eventually, it was also hoped that the body would develop in the path of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights which today, declares breaches of state obligations and orders both reparations and the payment of compensation.
The high hopes for the commission proved short- lived. In March 26, 20101, Rafendi Djamin, the Indonesian Representative to the Commission and respected as its most “progressive” commissioner, faced Noemi Parcon and others who sought to file their own communications and delivered the the sad news: the Commission will only receive thematic reports on human rights issues, but not individual complaints, and therefore no further action will be taken on any petition.
A year after the Ampatuan massacre, the victims continue to be denied of a speedy remedy under domestic law since a judgment of conviction does not appear to be possible in the near future. They are furthermore, denied reparations and compensation. It is precisely because of these shortcomings of our domestic law that a regional human rights mechanism should be established and soon.