Human rights ritualism in Southeast Asian regionalism

The governance of human rights in Southeast Asia is simultaneously at an all-time high and facing sustained challenge. Today, contrary no doubt to the founders of the regional organisation, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) possesses seemingly robust commitments to human rights. At the heart of this rights governance system sits the ASEAN Human Rights Commission (AICHR 2010) which oversees the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD 2012). Yet, at the same time as this system has developed, Southeast Asian states have seen considerable backsliding: repeated coups in Thailand, the policies of Duterte in the Philippines, and the continuing violation of rights in mainland Southeast Asia, most recently the violent military coup in Myanmar.

Our traditional understanding of why regional organisations create human rights commitments is tightly bound to the historical experiences of Europe, both because of the unprecedented nature of European integration and a more parochial concern of scholars largely based in Europe studying their “home” experience. Here it was unambiguously the case that regional commitments both mirrored alignment between member states and were intended to serve as a ‘lock-in’ for those national-level commitments, ensuring no backsliding. The result of this alignment and intention was the creation of strong regional governance, court systems, detailed and specific treaty commitments, robust oversight and, where necessary, formal policing mechanisms. Today we see this system embedded in multiple institutions, most notably the European Union and the Council of Europe.

For a long time this model of regional commitment to rights has dominated our understanding of how other regional organisations around the world develop and engage with human rights values. We have assumed that regional commitments represent agreement amongst member states and that regional commitments, when created, are intended to be strong. The result has been the assumption that regional commitments, and so regional organisations, are always ‘good things’ when it comes to promoting and protecting rights.

This policy brief asks how we can understand the reasons behind ASEAN’s engagement with human rights, as well as its current nature and significance. It compares ASEAN’s approach with other regional organisations.

Click on the cover image below to download the full policy brief.

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2 Responses

  1. A most welcome contribution to literature summed up admirably by one observation: “the most remarkable feature of ASEAN’s human rights system is the extent to which it is undermined by ASEAN’s wider approach to regional governance”. It reminds me of when the name of my former NGO was questioned. Was it the Cambodian Institute of Human Rights or the Institute of Cambodian Human Rights? Certainly the real point is the universality of human rights should not be sacrificed. There is little room for local contexts and notions of Asian values if principles and standards are to apply to all people regardless of where they live.

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  2. Botta Long

    It is undeniable that in Asia, until this date, respect for human rights is worrying. No need to hide our face. It is mainly the leaders of China, which has reached the rank of second economic power in the world, just after the United States of America, but to the detriment of respect for the universal values ​​of humanity (forced labor imposed on Uyghur people in the province of Xinjiang), civil liberties for the people of Hong Kong, are the main culprits for this delay in the violation of rights in Asia compared to Europe. It was always this same China which supported the Khmer Rouge regime, responsible for the death of 3 million people between 1975 and 1979. And more recently the dictatorships in Myanmar and Cambodia survive thanks to the unconditional support of Beijing which had succeeded in sow discord among the 10 members of the ASEAN group. The right of non interference which has prevailed in this group so far only favors dictatorships in a number of countries such as Myanmar and Cambodia, where human rights are violated and political opponents killed or jailed, ASEAN should only accept countries where leaders are freely chosen by their people.
    Long Botta
    MP for Battambang, Cambodia

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