ASEAN After 50: Defending Human Rights in ASEAN

Jakkrit Chuamuangphan

As 2017, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) marks 50 years since first founded in 1967. To date, ASEAN has shown a huge success in realizing the regional economic integration as it became a single market in 2015 and maintaining international relations with other states by placed itself at the center of relations such as ASEAN+3, ASEAN+6 and ARF. However, when it comes to the issue of human rights, ASEAN still stumbling upon its inability to ensure the significant improvement of human right environment all across the Southeast Asia. The increase in human rights violations indicates a weakening of ASEAN human rights institutions.

One of the greatest international concern is the case of human rights violations against individual or groups of human right defenders, which according to the UN Declaration referred to as a person or group who concern about human rights have a right to address the concern on behalf of others by peaceful means.

The human rights defenders are in danger because they are often subjected to harassment and lawsuits to stop their activity.

If we trace back to the past ten years, there are many cases of harassment that befell the human rights defenders either by state or non-state actor, due to their activities. For example, Andy Hall, a human rights defender for migrant worker, was intimidated and sued by some of Thailand’s food industries for defamation and Computer Crimes Act charges, as he tried to expose the abuse of Myanmar forced labor. Sombath Somphone, who promoted civil society in Laos and awarded Magsaysay for Community Leadership, was one of the victims of enforced disappearance by uniformed police officers in Vientiane in 2012 but the Lao Government immediately denied the accusations for his disappearance. Naw Chit Pandaing had been a strong advocate against human right violations and the issue regarding land and environmental right. Before she was stabbed to death in November 2016, she has investigated the impacts of mining in Dawei, Myanmar.

The cases above are some of the predicaments of the human rights defenders who tried to expose the misconduct of the government and influential elite that were subjected to criminal lawsuits or injustices. This reality leads to the most fundamental problems in the understanding of human rights, the functioning of human rights institutions and in the end, a great challenge for human rights defenders in ASEAN.

First, the lack of understanding of human right in each ASEAN member states. Most of the states or non-states are deluding with the misconceptions and false beliefs about human rights, that human rights are a threat to national security and their business interests. They tend to see only one side of the mirror, that gives more benefits as desired by states for the sake of security and economic interest.

The misconceptions and false belief of human rights among the ASEAN member states can be overcome by interpreting the values of human rights in line with the values of economic growth and national security.

However, as it happensuman rights defenders can not depend entirely on the government to deal with the protection of human right, as in some cases, states are found to be on the opposite with human rights defenders. In result, the hope of human rights defenders to seek protection go to a broader level, regional for instances. Unfortunately, there are some challenges as well, especially in the case of ASEAN. First, the ASEAN mechanism on human rights heading to only promote, not protect, which makes ASEAN ineffective for the protection of human rights and human rights defenders — even after ASEAN showed a good sign of human right improvement through the establishment of ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Right (AIHCR) in 2009.

Let’s take a look at the Terms of Reference of the AICHR. Almost all of the point of reference refer to the provisions and mandate to promote human rights, but not for the protection of human rights.  The only point of mandate that includes the word protection is stated in the article 4(10), “to obtain information from the ASEAN Member States on the promotion and protection of human rights.”

Why is this article becoming so important in the protection of human rights? Because of this is the channel that AICHR can obtain the information about human right violation from ASEAN member states. But, in fact, some of ASEAN member states that are part of AICHR consider this point as a form of violation to national sovereignty, therefore refuse to share or recognize any information regarding human right within their territory.

In spite of that fact that this article could be one strong basis to support the AIHCR gaining the information in regard to the human right violation from ASEAN member states.

In addition to that, the fruit of AICHR is also visible on the launching of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration in 2012. It seems to be an attempt of ASEAN member states to strengthen the human rights foundation in the region. However, it is a non-binding instrument which means it has no power to enforce any states in ASEAN. Moreover, in the eyes of ASEAN civil society, the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration is still considered as a “Still Window-dressing.” It simply means that it is for display only, it will never be used to protect human right and human right defenders.

The other reason is the lack of coordination with civil society organizations (CSOs) which, in fact, are very enthusiastic to work with ASEAN, yet ASEAN offers a very limited room for CSO activities. The Guidelines on the AICHR’s Relations with CSOs stated two important provisions in regard to that: First, “AICHR shall not have consultative relationships with CSOs that do not respect the principles and purposes of the ASEAN Charter”; Second, “Respect and comply with the national laws and regulations of the concerned ASEAN Member State where their activities take place”.  These provisions imply that CSOs that joined the consultative relationships with AICHR cannot criticize the way ASEAN worked and if it does not comply with the guidelines, the AICHR can suspend consultative relationships with that CSOs.

In the end, there are many challenges faced by human right defenders in carrying out their duties and goals within the scope of ASEAN. This means that ASEAN should take human rights more seriously, consider the value of human dignity to be equal to the value of economic growth and prove that this region is a true society of “sharing and caring” especially for those people who are weak and voiceless, as embedded in ASEAN vision.


*) Jakkrit Chuamuangphan is an MA Student in ASEAN Studies, Pridi Banomyong International College, Thammasat University