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ASEAN Integration: Human Rights Illusion

Le Cong Dinh

Le Cong Dinh

Human Rights Come to ASEAN?

On Monday, in Phuket, Thailand, ASEAN laid out plans to formally adopt the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AIGCHR) at its regional meeting in October of this year.  The commission will have a mandate for greater human rights education, information dissemination, and inter-regional capacity building.  It will be be quite interesting to see how the latter two goals will manifest, if at all, the more repressive member-states.  There in lies a problem that perpetually snowballs the more one takes a critical look at the proposed commission.

Not surprisingly,  the commission will have no authority to penalize member-states for violations.   Then again, to have violations you need a common working definition of what human rights constitute, but  due to the wide variation in how human rights are defined within ASEAN, on top of the organization’s penchant for consensus,  this would be nearly impossible.   Although not unusual for international organizations, but perhaps more conspicuous due to the astonishing weakness of the committee, ASEAN citizens will have no “political personality” – ability to petition the body if they feel their rights have been violated.  Then again, a right to petition does not matter, because the committee has no  investigative or advisory functionality.

Each ASEAN country will select representatives to sit on the committee.  The method by which potential representatives are appointed is determined by each member-states.  Non-government actors, such as civil society organization and experts may apply for positions, at least in some states.  The Philippines, along with Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia, have committed to hold a formal selection process; hopefully, it will be transparent, in the mode of Thailand’s domestic human rights commission, and not opaque like that of the Philippines.

ASEAN has historically been criticized for its human rights positions, or lack of, so the formation of such an impotent committee has  brought ASEAN under renewed criticism.  However, ASEAN should not be painted with a broad brush.  The more  democratic members, Indonesia,  the Philippines, and Thailand campaigned  for a  more authoritative human rights body, in contrast to the regimes of Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, which fought for a  weaker committee.  It appears that Singapore is neutral, not exactly surprising, as it is not unjustified to rate the “illiberal-democracy‘s” human right’s record as somewhere between the two main factions.  Of all the states, it appears Indonesia fought hardest for such things as monitoring, country visits, and peer review.  Apparently this was too radical and revolutionary.

In an effort to explain what the exact purpose of the committee is, the  Thai Prime Minister, also ASEAN chairman stated, “Progress will first be made on the front of promotion”.

Thailand’s foreign minister, in response to criticism that the committee’s terms of reference (ToR) were “watered down”, parried:

“…there was no intention to seek out ‘crime and punishment’.  ‘We [ASEAN] deal with it through good offices first [when problems crop up] and then arbitration. We do it in a civilised way – working together from inside out and not waiting for outsiders to punish us.'”

All of this begs the question:   What are human rights according to ASEAN?  Further, once defined, how important are these rights?  Is it necessary to have a committee when human rights are apparently subordinate to the core concept of “non-interference”,  in such a way as to cripple any real discussion?

Using the proposed framework, what will this committee do to address the situation in Myanmar?  This is a nation that has long been an ASEAN human rights nightmare for its citizens and other member-states.

What about states like Vietnam?  Despite, the 2007 removal of Vietnam from the U.S.  State Department’s list of  “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) – a label for states that violate religious freedoms, the recent case of a Catholic priest, Fr. Nguyen Van Ly, being imprisoned for two years shows how much Vietnam has not changed.  Last month, the Vietnamese government also arrested a prominent human-rights lawyer, Le Cong Dinh, for “conducting propaganda against the government”.  Due to strategic concerns, the Obama Administration has yet to vocally object to Vietnam’s behavior.  Will the ASEAN Human Right’s Committee?  Doubtful.

Historical Background

The latest events might possibly be considered progressive when one considers  the initial purpose of ASEAN and its subsequent history.  Never intended to be a political or economic union, ASEAN has been a collaborative body used to facilitate dialogue and consultation between newly sovereign nation-states afraid of regional instability.  Rather than comparing it to the present day European Union, it is more instructive to compare it to 18th and early 19th century Europe, while remaining cognoscente that Southeast Asia is vastly more diverse culturally, religiously, politically, and economically. Europe in comparison appears ethnically homogeneous and politically and economically uniform.

In December of 2008, the ASEAN Charter, was ratified by members and became legally binding. This was not only an effort to increase regional integration, but also to reaffirm the shared belief in national sovereignty and non-interference in the internal domestic matters of member-states.  As a result, unlike the EU, ASEAN does not apply a common external tariff on imported goods. The ASEAN Secretariat does have authority to monitor compliance with the Charter or the AFTA, but has no legal authority to enforce member-state compliance, although it may aid in efforts to mediate disputes between states. Most disputes are still resolved through informal bilateral means. ASEAN does have the ability to issue resolutions on conflicts, which have the power of an advisory opinion. The ability to issue opinions on conflicts is an evolutionary step for the organization.

Still, future political integration is dependent on ASEAN resolving its many desputes, especially territorial ones. There is still a high level of nationalism in the region; member-countries are suspicious of each other due to centuries of conflict, followed by colonial isolation. There are disputes over territories, which have sparked violence, as was the case in a recent border clash between Cambodia and Thailand in 2008.  These issues are generally considered “internal affairs”, and the  former colonial states are still fiercely protective of their sovreignty.  ASEAN has come to a point where the policy of non-interference intersects interdependence.  When will the member-states come to the conclusion  that sovereignty is not a zero-sum game?  Hopefully it will not take two “World Wars” to figure it out.