ASEAN’s ability to promote human rights is anything but sure

U.S. President Barack Obama with leaders from ASEAN member countries before the start of the fourth ASEAN-U.S. Summit Meeting at National Convention Center in Vientiane, Laos, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016. (Credit: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

State leaders effectively sidestepped human rights discussions at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summits last week in Laos to the disappointment of many, but not to their surprise. In a region where every nation is guilty of human rights abuses, critics may be quick to condemn empty gestures, but few can agree on the best way forward.

Leading up to the summits, which took place in Vientiane, Laos from Sept. 6 – 8, Amnesty International was one of many demanding answers for specific human rights violations from each of the 10 ASEAN member nations: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

From the wave of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines to the obstruction of aid to the ethnic minority Rohingya in Myanmar and the disappearance of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone, widespread abuses in the region violate the rights of women, children, laborers, minorities, migrants and the press, just to name a few.

As expected, no one got the answers they hoped for.

ASEAN, like other major players in the region, has long espoused a policy of “non-interference in the internal affairs” of member nations. In other words: “Back off, it’s none of your business.”

That commitment to sovereignty has plagued ASEAN’s human rights efforts from the start. Founded in the 1960s as a regional anti-communist and economic partnership, ASEAN’s directive didn’t include human rights until a 2007 charter, which promised the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), officially inaugurated in 2009.

As one of its first major tasks, AICHR drafted the ASEAN Human Rights declaration, which was signed in 2012. Immediately, it was harshly criticized by many, including Human Rights Watch (HRW), the U.S. Department of State and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, for providing loopholes in the name of “regional and national contexts” and falling far short of universal human rights standards.

The problem, according to even early critics, is that no one wants to cast the first stone in a neighborhood of glass houses.

“It has no real powers,” wrote John Sifton, acting deputy Washington director and Asia advocacy director at HRW, in a February article. “…It works through consensus, a procedural arrangement that makes it impossible to ever report on a human rights issue in any one country, since that country would object.”

But not everyone is quick to dismiss it.

“Even though it’s not strong yet, but given the politics and dynamics of the region, this is a major achievement of creating a human rights mechanism,” said T. Kumar, international advocacy director for Amnesty International, in an interview with Humanosphere. “In South Asia, nothing; in East Asia, nothing.”

Kumar explained that consensus was a political decision, necessary for the formation of the commission. Bilaterally, members are able to criticize human rights abuses and keep each other accountable.

“The mere fact that they have created this and that they have collectively agreed to work on several issues, particularly women, migrants, children – I think those are the ones they are really focusing on, non-contentious issues, non-political-created issues – it’s a major step,” Kumar said.

Yet more can always be done, and even Amnesty’s statement calls out the AICHR on “so-far empty gestures.” A cursory overview of the commission’s Five-Year Work Plan 2016-20 doesn’t provide much reassurance through specificity.

Passing over AICHR, many advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch are pressuring outsiders to effect change, particularly the U.S. through trade sanctions and public condemnation.

“The United States [should]link its diplomatic rewards more explicitly to concrete improvements on human rights, for instance, by stating clearly what the costs are for governments that fail to reform,” said Sifton.

For a region doggedly pursuing economic development, sanctions are an obvious strategy. That is, until U.S. foreign policy dictates that closer ties are more strategic than playing human rights police.

President Obama included promoting democracy and human rights in his “rebalance” to Asia policy, but lack of enforcement in the face of improving economic integration and strengthening strategic and military ties – the other two prongs of his policy – have reduced Obama’s efforts to yet another empty gesture.

Kumar says U.S. sanctions are not the only option. They may not even be the best.

“You know the biggest problem for the U.S. in other countries is that [those countries]can whip up nationalistic sentiment, saying that these are outsiders who are trying to interfere in our area,” he said.

Protests along those lines have taken to the streets of Myanmar over the recent appointment of a commission led by Ghanian former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to review human rights abuses against the Rohingya ethnic minority.

“We have to be extremely cautious in saying only one country can do it,” Kumar added. “It’s better for the U.S. not to be standing out as someone who is trying to look around for human rights improvements, rather than bringing a collective approach. It takes more than one or two leaders to speak out.”

Sanctions aside, Kumar says that the U.S. should fund AICHR to make it stronger, strengthen local independent human rights commissions, take a stand on issues already felt by large populations within the country and present issues to forums like the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Kumar wants ASEAN to know that advocates aren’t pushing for human rights at the expense of all other objectives. Rather, human rights are as much a part of the equation for long-term success as security and economic development.

At least in some countries, the message seems to be coming through to some extent. Myanmar’s Rohingya commission is seen as a huge step in the right direction, and Indonesia’s security minister, Wiranto, publicly called on members to strengthen AICHR at the Laos summit.

But how effective ASEAN will be as an institution for human rights remains to be seen. Consider the new chairman, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, whose drug war has killed more than 3,000 people since May, and who has officially said, “I don’t care about human rights, believe me.”

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.