ASEAN and Human Rights – Can they mix?

42 years after the formation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the regional grouping has recognised the importance of human rights. Or has it?

The 42nd ASEAN Ministerial Meeting adopted the Terms of Reference for the ASEAN human rights body which will be named, the ASEAN Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights. Perspectives from both sides indicate that this development can be viewed either as a glass half empty or half full.

What is most ironic is that ASEAN members have instituted a regional human rights mechanism when their own domestic records are questionable. Utilising any available evaluation for meeting human rights obligations and one finds ASEAN members’ faring miserably. The Freedom in the World publication by Freedom House which provides a comparative assessment of global political rights and civil liberties provides an indicator of how badly ASEAN member states perform. Only Indonesia is ranked as free. Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are ranked as not free while Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Singapore are ranked as partly free. The same findings are evident in other reports such as Amnesty International’s Report or the U.S. Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.

For the skeptics, this is ASEAN at its best — all form, no substance and gaining political mileage internationally. It may eventually replicate the United Nations Human Rights Council and its Universal Periodic Review. The United Nations Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review is a system of peer review where member countries –- often all perpetrators of human rights abuse –- provide glowing reports for each other. Imagine China, Sudan and Pakistan providing peer review of Burma/Myanmar. In the same breath, imagine, Singapore, Malaysia and Cambodia peer-reviewing Myanmar.

It took 42 years for ASEAN to formally recognise human rights. Let’s hope it does not take another 42 years for human rights to be implemented meaningfully in Southeast Asia.