Democratic values and human rights in ASEAN

A police woman directs traffic at Noi Bai airport during Myanmar's Prime Minister Thein Sein's aircraft after his arrival ceremony in Hanoi

Southeast Asia is marked by a fragmented and shifting state of democratic development. Much of this fragmentation can be explained by conflict over political values concerning the choice of governance systems, degree of participation and level of accountability.

In ASEAN, it is this lack of shared “democratic” values that has impacted the protection capacity of the ASEAN Inter-Governmental Commission of Human Rights (AICHR). This is the principal finding of a special issue of the Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs titled “Democracy and Human Rights in Southeast Asia”.

Published by the German Institute of Global and Area Studies’ Institute of Asian Studies, this new volume brings together six researchers who examine how ASEAN’s political framework shaped the establishment of the region’s human rights mechanism.

Since the 2007 Charter, ASEAN has been pursing democratic forms of governance, rule of law and the attendant fundamental human rights through “community-building” in many areas. However a “community” presupposes the development of common values among its member-states and among its citizens.

But the papers in the volume reveal that ASEAN’s people-centered approach to regional integration is problematic due to the absence in practice of a community firmly anchored to democratic principles. In fact, member states had divergent reasons for adopting the Charter and the AICHR.

For instance, weaker and less secure states, with the authoritarian and military regimes, are not comfortable with the push towards a human rights regime that is aligned to international standards.

As a result, the adoption of democratic terminology in its documents and the establishment of a human right mechanism has not allowed ASEAN to move away from its non-interference position to a more interventionist stance among the member states.

Closer investigation shows that unless the quality of democracy in all ten countries improve through the adoption of shared democratic values, the human rights regime is unlikely to improve substantially. On the academic front existing perspectives from realist, constructivist and acculturalist perspectives preclude a single theoretical explanation.

The region is no exception to the global march of democracy that has taken place in recent decades but in the case of the protection capacity of ASEAN’s human rights regime, distinctions between democracy in form and substance must be noted.

The papers in the collection are aimed at policy makers, practitioners and students of politics, democracy and human rights in Asia and elsewhere. It is intended to stimulate further debate and discussion on ASEAN’s evolving human rights regime.

James Gomez and Robin Ramcharan co-edited the latest issue of the Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs entitled “Democracy and Human Rights in Southeast Asia”. All papers in the collection are available for download at http://www.giga-hamburg.de/en/news/asean-democracy