ASEAN@40- Human Rights and External Affairs

Updated On: Aug 10, 2007

After seemingly succeeding in managing conflict within ASEAN in the last four decades, there is now greater expectation that ASEAN would turn towards promoting human rights and democracy.

Myanmar is the main target of this attention on human rights. The United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon's special adviser on Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari is currently on a trip in Southeast Asia to meet with some of the stakesholders of Myanmar’s journey towards democracy. He met with Thai Foreign Minister Nitya Pibulsonggram on Wednesday (8 August 2007) and exchanged views about developments in Myanmar, including matters of politics, democracy, human rights and the national reconciliation process. Gambari had earlier hold talks in Singapore, and would also visit Kuala Lumpur andJakarta.

Ibrahim Gambari said that although Suu Kyi’s party did not participate in the military junta's National Convention, he hoped that the talks would eventually lead to her release from house arrest. He pointed out, “The international community would have preferred a more inclusive process, but nonetheless it's an important event.”

This sanguine view was not shared by activists elsewhere. In the Philippines, activists picketed outside Myanmar's embassy in Manila, demanding the release of detained pro-democracy activists including Aung San Suu Kyi. Representative Loretta Ann Rosales who is also a member of a Southeast Asian group of parliamentarians seeking democratic reforms in Myanmar asked, “If Burma can get away with murder would that make Asean successful?”

Another Representative, Teodoro Casino, said ASEAN’s attempts to bolster the region's economy through free-trade deals have not benefited the poor given the vast number of impoverished people in the region. He added, “ASEAN looks good on paper….. But it has a long way to go in terms of human rights protection and fostering real democracy.”

Though after some wrangling, the provision for a human rights commission is likely to be included in the ASEAN Charter, specific details regarding the human rights commission has yet to be worked on.  One column in the Manila Standard pointed out the difficulty of ASEAN members in arriving at a consensus of what the criteria of human rights in the region would look like. This is especially given the fact that many of the ASEAN members do not even practise procedural democracy.

Still, the issue is not over the fact that humans have rights but whether ASEAN members can agree on what these rights are and who is responsible for guaranteeing these rights and how these rights will be enforced. These questions might be more difficult to resolve than coming to an agreement to manage their disputes peacefully.

Even while ASEAN is celebrating its 40th anniversary, it is also commemorating its relations with a number of dialogue partners. This year marks the 30th anniversary of ties between ASEAN and the European Union (EU). However, ties between the two have generally been lacklustre. Few EU foreign ministers regularly attend ASEAN-EU ministerial meetings. The EU has been more concerned about its own integration than relations without.

Within the East Asian region, ASEAN has insisted on its role as the driver of East Asian integration. However, it has been proceeding slowly due to concerns by a number of ASEAN members that the ASEAN community would be diluted if too much attention were to be paid to the wider East Asian integration. Furthermore, a recent study conducted by the Centre for East Asian Cooperation Studies at theUniversity of Indonesia, found that JapanChina and South Korea, rather than ASEAN, have taken the bulk of the initiative in implementing the recommendations of the East Asia Vision Group and East Asia Study group. Most of these recommendations involve the holding of meetings and working groups.

In particular, the Chinese have been active in pushing for more initiatives with ASEAN. The director-general of the department of Asian affairs with the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Hu Zhengyue, said, “Closer cooperation between the two sides is mutually beneficial, offering mutual political respect, economic development and the chance to share our different experiences.” Both ASEAN and China are negotiating the ASEAN China Free Trade Agreement, signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and established a strategic partnership. China has also become the first country outside ofSoutheast Asia to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation.

Japan has been left behind. In this light, Singapore's Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Zainul Abidin Rasheed called on Japan and ASEAN to explore new areas of collaboration to meet the challenge from China and India. He suggested energy as a possible area of cooperation. Japan not only has the third largest nuclear programme worldwide but is also a leader in clean energy technologies. Zainul said, “With closer collaboration between Japan and Asean in terms of knowledge sharing, technology transfer and industry development, our ties would certainly be enhanced.” (9 August 2007)


Human Rights in ASEAN (Manila Standard, 9 August 2007)

U.N. envoy seeks progress in Myanmar on democracy, rights (Kyodo News, 8 August 2007)

UN hopes Myanmar talks lead to Suu Kyi's release (Agence France Presse, 8 August 2007)

Activists In Philippines Say Asean Fostered Strongman Regimes (Dow Jones International News, 8 August 2007

No More Fear of Human Rights (The Jakarta Post, 8 August 2007)

If not democracy, what values exist in Southeast Asia? (The Jakarta Post, 8 August 2007)

Making a partnership work with EU (The Jakarta Post, 8 August 2007)

Exercising the concept of driving force flexibly in the region (The Jakarta Post, 8 August 2007)

Energy tie-up can bring Japan, Asean closer: Zainul (The Straits Times, 8 August 2007)

Cooperation Enters New Era (China Daily, 8 August 2007)

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