Nearly two decades after Southeast Asian leaders first proposed a charter to protect human rights in the region, officials are still laboring on the first draft, reflecting the low level of priority given to a crucial agenda.
What may be more disheartening is that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) panel tasked with drafting the charter is working in isolation by not sharing information with civil society groups striving to improve the region's dismal human rights record.
"Not a single piece of substantive information on the process has been officially shared, and even the terms of reference of the drafting group have been kept confidential," right groups Amnesty International charged in a statement this week.
It said several national and regional nongovernmental organizations have made submissions to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) on the charter but "there has been no official response."
Amnesty's concern does not come as a surprise to many.
When the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay traveled to the region in November, she was besieged by a similar concern from ASEAN civil society groups.
“The number one concern,” she said, was that the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights—as a body—is "not talking to civil society, although there have been some contacts with the current chairperson and one or two other commissioners in their individual capacity."
"That is a major concern to me as well," she said, according to a statement by her office. "No discussion of human rights can be complete or credible without significant input from civil society and national human rights institutions.”
The U.N. human rights chief also urged the commission "to listen to civil society calls for more transparency" with regard to the forthcoming ASEAN human rights charter.
“This is potentially a very important document which may set the tone for years to come,” Pillay said. “And I can understand civil society organizations’ extreme frustration that they have not even been able to contribute to the drafting of the declaration, or been adequately consulted on its contents."
The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, launched in 2009 as the overarching human rights institution in ASEAN, said in a statement this week that a drafting group has produced the "basic draft" of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration.
A progress report on the draft is to be submitted this week to the ASEAN foreign ministers, who are at present meeting in Cambodia's Siem Reap city, the statement said.
Officials say the ASEAN grouping hopes to finalize the draft of the rights charter in 2012, a good 19 years since ASEAN foreign ministers agreed in Singapore in 1993 to "consider the establishment of an appropriate regional mechanism on human rights."
The snail's pace at which the charter, aimed at regulating human rights in the 10 ASEAN states, is being drafted underscores the blatant rights abuses and lackluster democratic reforms in the largely rapidly-growing region of half a billion people, activists say.
In Vietnam, where one-party communist rule does not tolerate opposition, authorities have restricted religious activity and launched a crackdown on online dissent, including blogging. A Vietnamese woman land activist was banished to a reeducation camp recently.
In neighboring Laos, dissidents who protested to publicize their dissatisfaction with one-party communist rule have been languishing in jail under appalling conditions for more than a decade.
Singapore, the smallest and yet richest ASEAN state, is reluctant to abolish a draconian law that allows indefinite detention without trial and that had been used to muzzle dissent. One dissident had been detained for 26 years.
Neighboring Malaysia last year agreed to abolish a similar repressive law but has instead proposed other legislation that will erode freedom, including one which activists say makes holding public demonstrations more restrictive than in Burma, which is just emerging from decades of harsh military rule.
In oil-rich Brunei, people are anxiously waiting for the day the sultan, who has been ruling by decree, will fulfill his promise made more than seven years ago to call for parliamentary elections.
Even in democracies like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand, recent developments do not offer much optimism.
In Indonesia, for example, there was a "deterioration of the human rights situation ... in terms of religious freedom, the role of the judiciary and accountability for violence by security forces," the Asian Human Rights Commission said in a year-end report.
In the Philippines, the commission expressed alarm over "extrajudicial killings, forced disappearance, torture and displacements due to armed conflict" while in Thailand, a "deep-seated, ingrained culture of impunity that spans the state security forces, judiciary and civil service" is continuing to block the emergence of a human rights-respecting culture.
For human rights to be accepted as a critical ingredient of the region's progress, ASEAN has to first get its act together in drafting the rights charter, civil society groups say.
There has been some doubt among these groups on whether the final draft of the charter can be completed quickly, especially at a time when ASEAN is being chaired by Cambodia, which has been accused of numerous rights abuses.
But some officials appear to remain optimistic.
“We are committed and determined to finalize the AHRD [ASEAN Human Rights Declaration] in 2012," Chet Chealy, president of the Cambodia-ASEAN Center for Human Rights Development, was quoted as saying this week.