Respect of Freedom of Thought, Conscience, and Religion Essential to ASEAN Stability

Jakarta, 5 February 2015—A recent article of the Bangkok Post, “Faith and peace a good mix for Asean stability,” highlighted the HRRC’s latest research project, “Keeping the Faith: A Study of Freedom of Thought, Conscience, and Religion in ASEAN.” The article drew attention to the findings of the study, including the observation that in a religiously and ethnically diverse region like ASEAN, there is a close connection between religious freedom and peace and security. Thus, persecution and violations of religious freedom raise the risk of conflict that can threaten national and regional security.

The article quoted H.E. Ong Kong Yong, Chairperson of HRRC’s Governing Board and former Secretary-General of the ASEAN, during his remarks at the launch of the study in Jakarta this January. Ong said that while ASEAN leaders for the past 10 years had made efforts to institutionalise the protection and promotion of human rights, “[w]e are still not perfect; we are still trying to navigate ourselves through these difficult areas.”

Comprised of 10 country reports covering the state of religious freedom and belief in each of the ASEAN countries and a synthesis report, the study hopes to generate discussions so that views of different members of society could contribute to finding solutions to discrimination or persecution based on religion or belief. In this respect, the open forum during the launch of the study gave valuable insight. Commenters generally noted that the study is helpful and, more importantly, gave suggestions on how to improve future research on the area as well as possible next steps.

In particular, the Representative of Malaysia to the ASEAN, H.E. Dato’ Hasnudin bin Hamzah, proposed that good practices of ASEAN governments be emphasized more and that HRRC should consider doing research activities that would gather and collate raw data and first-hand information. Dr. Denison Jayasooria of the Society for the Promotion of Human Rights (PROHAM) suggested that HRRC provide the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) with a policy statement based on the study so that ASEAN countries could verify and address the issues highlighted. It was also suggested that the study be publicised and disseminated widely. Through this, governments and their agencies could possibly draw examples of good practices in governance. 


 A representative of the Human Rights Directorate of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Indonesia, noted that the study does not provide suggestions to governments on what actions to take to address the issues raised in the study and suggested that HRRC provide recommendations. Ms. Michelle Staggs-Kelsall, Deputy Director of the HRRC, particularly appreciated this suggestion. Kelsall noted that HRRC had sought, through the study, to encourage debates and dialogues so that stakeholders could work together to find solutions. According to her, the suggestion to include recommendations “shows openness to suggestions of civil society.”

Guests from countries outside ASEAN also provided their comments. A representative from the Embassy of Pakistan in Jakarta noted that the region is impacted by religious movements all over the world that contribute to religious extremism in Muslim countries. This factor, he noted, might be important in reshaping the future landscape and should be taken into account when considering how to address issues in the region.

The study, which is funded by the Norwegian Embassy in Jakarta, had included a consultation process wherein experts gave their comments on the study while it was being drafted. Through this exercise, the HRRC was able to consider their observations and suggestions in drafting the final report. A group of NGOs had furnished HRRC with a letter stating that, “[i]n light of the concerns mentioned [in the letter], [they] consider it not only ineffective but also damaging for human rights proponents to apply/use the AHRD when assessing human rights performance or conduct in the region.” Demonstrating the richness and range of opinions in the region, a member of the faculty of the University of Indonesia expressed reservations during the launch in January on the use of Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as a normative baseline for the research, voicing a stronger preference for Article 22 of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD).

In response to the said letter, Professor Tore Lindholm and Professor W. Cole Durham, Jr., as expert advisors of the study, stated that, while they agree with the argument of the NGOs that the AHRD falls short of the full freedom of religion and belief protections articulated in other human rights documents, improvements can be made over time by amending the AHRD provisions, and even more easily, by construing AHRD commitments in ways that conform to the overall body of human rights instruments. They emphasized that “such improvements are less likely if there is no clear empirically based analysis of the actual compliance situation on the ground. That is precisely what the Keeping the Faith report seeks to provide.” The experts opined that “it is not counterproductive to identify problems crying out for solution, even if solving these problems does not achieve full compliance with international norms. It may be more realistic to have interim targets that can lay the foundation for evolution toward full compliance.”