Socialising Human Rights in ASEAN


U Ko Ni, a legal advisor of National League for Democracy (NLD), was shot in Rangoon  Airport on February. He was returning from an official visit to Indonesia addressing crisis in Rakhine State. Mr Ko Ni has been an outspoken lawyer, who has always committed to political reform and democracy, and a notable defender of minority rights in the country.

His death was undoubtedly a huge loss, both for Burmese Human Rights activists and Burmese Muslim Community.

What is worrying from his murder is not only that U Ko Ni was shot in the midst of Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, but also the fact that there has been a rising hate crimes and intolerance in the country. This is, however, not only the case in Myanmar, but also in several other countries in Southeast Asia, for example with rising anti-Chinese sentiments in Indonesia or political turbulence in Malaysia.

This rising problem of intolerance and hate crimes –along with the murder of Mr U Ko Ni— is therefore a regional problem that must be taken seriously by ASEAN.

It has, therefore, posed some serious concerns over the future of Human Righs in ASEAN. Can Human Rights and Democracy stand against the rising hate crimes and sectarian violence in the region? What could ASEAN do to tackle these problems?

ASEAN has followed a dynamic path to embrace Human Rights and Democracy in the region. It dated back to 1993, when ASEAN Foreign Ministers agreed to coordinate a common approach on human rights and actively provide some institutional venues for the promotion and the protection of Human Rights in the region. A decade later, under the new ASEAN Charter, the member states have stepped forward to establish ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) in 2009.

It was then followed by the establishment of ASEAN Human Rights Declaration in 2013, although being considered by Human Rights activists as a controversial declaration.

Despite of some controversies regarding the declaration or lack of AICHR role in its Terms of Reference, it should be noted that ASEAN had taken a progressive path to institutionalise Human Rights in the region. However, with the rising hate crimes, intolerance, or some accusations of Human Rights abuse conducted by state officials in some countries, it is evident that ASEAN’s constructive role in promoting Human Rights is insufficient.

We need a more progressive effort to promote Human Rights to broader elements of Southeast Asian society.

What is at stake? The problem of Human Rights in ASEAN is not merely related to the lack of role that AICHR owns in dealing with Human Rights issues in the region, but also with the lack of understanding over Human Rights among people in ASEAN. So far, Human Rights is often associated with Western norms that is unsuitable with the so-called ‘Asian Values’ or state sovereign jurisdictions to rule their own people.

This misunderstanding has also been related to ASEAN’s non-intervention’ principle that has been the core of decision-making process in ASEAN since its establishement. State obligation to tackle Human Rights problem is often obscured with this principle, even though the problem has been widespread over the region, such as the Rohingya crisis.

I shall argue that this should be not the case in ASEAN if we could re-understand Human Rights not as a ‘value’ that should be imposed in particular subject (or state) through international law or regional politics, but as the ‘duty’ to treat other people as a part of ‘community’.

This obligation is enrooted in the often neglected pillar of ASEAN community, namely ‘ASEAN Social and Cultural Community’ (ASCC). The blueprint of ASEAN Social and Cultural Community, described in the newly-adopted ASEAN Vision 2015-2025, has provided some new understanding of Human Rights that is based upon the human development and the fulfillment of social and economic rights of the people.

The blueprint of ASEAN Social and Cultural Community also infers the need for ‘ASEAN single identity’, which thus implies the need for a ‘multi-cultural understanding’ among Southeast Asian people. Through this concept, ‘Human Rights’ should not be understood merely as a value to be imposed through state or regional authority, but instead as obligation to be fulfilled by both states and society.

The murder of U Ko Ni should then be the case for reconstructing Human Rights in ASEAN beyond legal perspective. Two aspects needs to be addressed.

First, ASEAN needs to strengthen the promotion of Human Rights not only to state elites or civil society organisations, but also to broader elements of society such as business entities, small and medium enterprises, or social organisations. It means that the promotion of Human Rights should not be spared with the socialisation of ASEAN in grass-root level.

Second, we need to develop ASEAN not only as a matter of state-related business, but also as a part of broader discourse of citizenship. We could begin with understanding the citizens of ASEAN member states as a part of our community that encompasses different cultural and social background as one community of people. The murder of U Ko Ni reflects the failure to acknowledge difference within the country, which needs to be addressed by ASEAN through its grass-root socialisation.

Finally, the rising hate speeches, intolerance, racism, or the failure to treat different should not be the case to dissolve Human Rights in the region. Rather, by taking into account the importance of ASEAN’s social and cultural community, ASEAN could bring Human Rights as the case for building a more prosperous and stable region in the future.

Ahmad Rizky Mardhatillah Umar, Executive Secretary at ASEAN Studies Center, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas Gadjah Mada