30 October 2009

diplomacy vs advocacy

Beware of ASEAN rights diplomacy
Awzar Thi (http://www.upiasia.com/Human_Rights/)

Last Friday, 10 civil society representatives learned the hard way what a new Asian regional human rights initiative is really all about.

The 10 had expected to meet leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, one representing each country in the grouping, for a chat prior to the launch of the Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.

But the night before, officials from the Foreign Ministry of Thailand – where the event was being held – said that only five would be allowed through the door. When the five arrived at the venue, officials told them that they could not open their mouths.

Welcome to human rights dialogue, ASEAN style.

In a statement, the spurned activists said that the move was “a rejection of both civil society and the democratic process” that “sabotages the credibility” of the new commission. Media reports cited other groups as “bashing” and “deriding” the body.

All this seems to be much ado about nothing.

It was obvious from the start that the purpose of the new ASEAN body is not to protect human rights. Its purpose is the exact opposite.

ASEAN has created the Intergovernmental Commission so that member governments and their own ineffectual rights institutions can push complaints of abuses outside their borders. There they can be professionally watered down and run through various “channels” and “mechanisms” until the original point is forgotten and frustrated complainants give up.

Although the commission is not intended to promote rights, it is aiming to promote members’ campaigns for seats on prestigious international bodies, like the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Thailand has already announced that it will bid for the peak U.N. rights body next year. Its current ambassador to the council was government spokesman when former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s administration was enabling the murder of thousands of alleged drug dealers in 2003.

In his new improved role as ASEAN human rights defender, the ambassador has been working on the intergovernmental body, perhaps with the expectancy of a better seat at the big hall in Geneva.

That these governments are working hard on their human rights diplomacy for reasons other than human rights is unsurprising. That civil society groups have been suckered into the diplomacy agenda is unfortunate.

Not only has it proven to be a complete waste of time and money, but also it is damaging to the defense of human rights in Asia.

Human rights diplomacy causes groups to lose touch with the real work of human rights advocacy. Diplomacy obliges negotiation and compromise. It is the stuff of closed doors and secret handshakes. By contrast, advocacy means standing firm on principles. It is necessarily public and open.

Rights diplomats fear to speak out because they might step on officials’ toes or risk their status with fellow diplomats. They sacrifice their ability to communicate on critically important issues on the streets in order to keep their cherished places at the table.

This is why, for instance, some groups have failed to speak out against the use of the lèse majesté law to silence and imprison people in Thailand, when in principle they ought to have not even hesitated.

Rights diplomats may flatter themselves into thinking that they can make progress through quiet negotiating, as if they were concluding a trade agreement or making an arms deal, but the fact is that this method is inimical to the real work of defending human rights.

This is because the single most important purpose of human rights advocacy is to break open silences and challenge taboos that allow abuses to continue. The work of human rights is to end the censorship of debate on problems that cause violations to persist.

Censorship can only be broken through advocacy. Human rights diplomacy, by contrast, not only reinforces censorship but also forces its participants to engage in self-censorship.

Persons who engage in self-censorship on the pretence of dialogue should expect little sympathy later when they find that they have been made victims of their own attempts at diplomacy, and then cry out that they have been unfairly treated.

But hopefully they will have learned an important lesson, that human rights diplomacy and human rights advocacy are incompatible. Anyone opting to engage in the former can only do so at the cost of giving up on the latter. And to give up on the latter ultimately means to give up on human rights.

29 October 2009

fruitful travelling

my recent trip to south korea was wonderful. i spent most of my time basking in the southern countryside, which is gorgeous and idyllic, lush with rice paddies and mountains, temples and traditional houses. it was one of my most outdoorsy vacations, and i loved it. the best part was not only hanging out with ksa, but also experiencing her country and culture with her. it was a very fruitful trip -we visited many places (too many perhaps, for such a short time!), ate lots of yummy (and homemade) korean food, did a lot of shopping, received a lot of gifts and laughed a lot. i wish all my trips were as fortunate and hassle free! in particular, i wish my next trip to be so..

i have few expectations however. in fact, the expectations are all in the negative. sigh. my biggest concerns include having little control over my own life, of having no friends around, and instead being surrounded by people who think i am from a distant planet, of being unproductive and stagnation. not to mention the corruption, chaos and lack of punctuality. i tell myself all kinds of cheery nonsense and chant numerous mantras, but really, when it comes right down to it, i would give anything to not go. it's too late for that, i know. so i must simply 'prepare a face to meet the faces that i will meet', and 'dare to disturb the universe'. (and look forward to discussing pigs and music with c). the memories and photos of korea will have to keep me going for a while..

12 October 2009

anticipation coming to an end

three events that i have been thinking about and planning for what seems to be eons, are now around the corner. and i am in a bit of shock. i have spent so long thinking of them, it seems surreal that there is nothing left to think; just to do! it must also be admitted -thinking and planning gave me something to do, other than ponder on what the events mean, how they will change my life (in different degrees).

for at least the past five months, these events have defined my being. plans have been made in relation to when event 1 is over, or when i return from event 2. when all three are over, i will have a new slate, with no plans (at least none yet anyway!). while exciting, it is also a little alarming. there is a sense of emptiness; of things moving too fast, out of my control; of letting go (which i have never been particularly good at).

i am not ready to think much beyond the three events however. i will try to simply immerse myself in them, and hope that the anticipating did nothing to their charm. later, i may take stock..

03 October 2009

superficial interaction

i've been happily cruising along on facebook for sometime now, when it was brought home to me that the interactions there, however well intentioned, are really quite superficial. i was initially very excited by fb, because i found so many of my university friends there, most of whom i'd lost touch with through email. yes, it was--is--wonderful to see their virtual footsteps, see pictures of them and their new families, read their status updates. the problem arises i guess, when you expect all this to mean something, to fill the void left by the absence of these people. in fact, it just makes the void that much more noticeable. i find it so frustrating that all my friends are scattered around the world, that it is so hard for me to make new friends here, that these new friendships never seem to match the quality of those in the past.

and yet, were those friendships really that great, or do they just seem so now?