As an event, the Congress of AFAD was a success. It was so because it put to a close a period in which AFAD has evolved in an admirable way and because it opens a future in which AFAD will be able to continue its good work.
First, all the ingredients for a fruitful meeting were brought together by the congress organizers. The Baan Siri Rama Place in Bangkok is a good location. Accommodation, food, venue, microphones, all details were thought of with pragmatism and the travel arrangements worked out well (the only problem had to do with South Asian participants who had problems getting visas to leave their country). The meetings were well-organized, the programme was ambitious, but followed clear objectives for each of the sessions. Almost all of the delegates of the member-organizations of AFAD were well-prepared to present reports, country situations and the activities of their own organizations. The Delegates seemed also to have taken as much materials to distribute and to exhibit as they could take on the plane. All were motivated and disciplined during the sessions, which is laudable considering that some of the meeting days lasted from 9.00 in the morning 'till 11 at night. Punctuality may not be an Asian value, but it was no problem: the meeting appointed me as time-policeman to pressure (through insisting on count-downs) the delegates to get back to the conferences on time. To allow equality in participation of all delegates and in particular of the Secretary-General, the chair was also cleverly conferred on me from the second day. The atmosphere during the congress was good despite the stress from the very heavy programme. An evening visit to the River City by boat was a welcome break.
The organization and the logistics were, in a very large measure, well- prepared due to the extensive preparation of the Secretariat. The choice of Bangkok was partly made in order to enable the Thai member of AFAD to be more involved in AFAD's activities. For the practical arrangements, however, the Secretariat received most of the assistance it needed from the support-organization, Non-Violence International.
Apart from the organization of the event, one should also assess the outcomes of the congress. Here again, one can be quite positive about the quantity and quality of decisions reached, and about the effects of the congress on both external actors, as well as on the AFAD members themselves.
The week opened with a public meeting at the Thai Commission on Human Rights. It is always good to take advantage of having all AFAD members together for holding a public event, even if there were not so many journalists present. The meeting was an occasion to meet a large number of families of victims of the May 1992 massacre in Thailand. The formal character of this public meeting did not allow for much discussion or thought-provoking speeches. After the welcome message by Dr. Sutchin Nophaket, Commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission in Thailand, Mary Aileen Bacalso presented the objectives of AFAD and its need to respond to the returning threat of authoritarianism within the political context of Asia as a consequence of the War Against Terrorism. Mr. Nicholas Howen, the Regional Representative for Asia Pacific of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights provided an update on the state of things on the issue of disappearances within the UN.
The real achievements and the most meaningful work was accomplished during the congress proper. AFAD formally accepted the Indonesian organization IKOHI as a new member. Each of the member-organizations provided the group with a detailed assessment of the situation in each country, of the activities of the member-organization, and of its role in contributing to AFAD's objectives and previous plans of action.
A summary of AFAD's concerns of the country situations and the recommendations to Asian governments have been issued by the congress in a series of resolutions: most of these resolutions reiterate the demands of the families for truth, justice and also redress; some denounce very recent disappearance cases and other human rights violations e.g. in Kashmir and Aceh . The resolutions also criticize the lack of response and insufficient reparation measures from governments. The resolution on the Philippines urges for the certification of the Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act of 2003 (which would then become the first condemnation of disappearances in a national law in a non-Latin American country). Finally the resolutions strongly advocated the elaboration and adoption of an effective legally- binding international treaty to protect all persons from enforced disappearances.
The country reports allowed for an assessment of the overall situation in Asia by Munir, concluding that 9/11 and the war on terrorism provided a new excuse to return to increasingly authoritarian attitudes within many Asian governments. More than ever, AFAD's transcending of Asian borders and its model of regional cooperation and solidarity are needed as a means to react against human rights violations, especially in the Asian context where states so jealously protect their own sovereignty against external intervention.
The AFAD members endured lengthy meetings of patiently reviewing their Constitution and By-Laws, drafting their Orientation , and discussing an Action Plan for the upcoming three-year period. The way the statutes were amended also demonstrated a maturation within AFAD-some amendments were made so as to maintain balance among the members, even if there would be several from a same country in the future; it will also not occur again that functions within the council or the executive council would remain vacant for a long time.
How does AFAD come out of its second congress? Unity amidst diversity? The diversity within the group of AFAD members is undeniable. AFAD regroups organizations of very different sizes and defending families of disappearances that occurred in very different contexts. For some, the disappearances are quite recent, for others they occurred a decade ago. Still the links between these organizations are strongly held by the federation's Secretariat. AFAD has certainly consolidated in dealing with other organizations and governments. It has become a political actor of quite some weight in the Asian region and within the international community. It has convinced donors of its efficiency and perseverance in continuing the struggle of its members, either jointly or through mutual support. AFAD benefits from a growing network of support groups and has built up good relations with like-minded organizations and with some donor-organizations.
At the internal level, as a federation, AFAD is also growing strong. It has acquired legal expertise, administrative skills for its internal organization, and it is sharpening its strategic planning and the political analysis on which it bases its priorities and modes of action.
The congress, however, also showed a few symptoms of the limitations of AFAD. The federation is very centralized in its secretariat. Most of the work is done by the secretariat, the expertise (particularly on international law issues) is concentrated in the person of the Secretary-General . Most of the initiatives are generated by the secretariat. Within AFAD, it is the secretariat that is the center of the interaction, it distributes the information, launches initiatives, and actively encourages the participation of the members. The role of the secretariat and the participation level of the member-organizations may become imbalanced. The danger would then be that AFAD's Secretariat would unwittingly function more and more as an autonomous NGO acting on behalf of the AFAD members instead of a secretariat coordinating the efforts of the member-organizations themselves. AFAD is therefore, right to make sure all organizations remain involved in international lobbying activities. Capacity-building activities that would empower the membership to participate effectively in activities coordinated by the Secretariat are also important. Finally, increased cooperation with other organizations and with associations of relatives of the disappeared of other continents was also seen as one of the objectives for the future.
AFAD has the potential to grow, as it is planning to approach families of the disappeared in other Asian countries (East Timor, Cambodia, Burma, Nepal, etc…) to join. But while it is true that there is strength in numbers, this would make it more difficult to maintain the information flowing among the members and facilitate initiatives to be generated by the membership rather than by the Secretariat. There has to be a balance between consolidation of existing members and the federation in itself as well as expansion to countries.
AFAD is still struggling to raise funds for its activities, though the rigorous efforts being made in the processes of reporting and strategic planning are likely to help AFAD to overcome this financial precariousness in the near future.
AFAD proved at this congress that it does foster unity amidst a diversity of families of disappeared, of different contexts, cultures, languages and organizations. At its second congress, AFAD represented the convincing and effective way of the families' organizations in Asia to add up their strengths, all for one and one for all, in the struggle against enforced disappearances. The most illustrative moment of the congress was the embrace of a mother from Kashmir with a mother from Thailand, who were not able to speak each other's language, but who made clear that something as intangible as the solidarity among victims is the strongest cement for the unity of AFAD.