The Long and Difficult Search for Human Rights in ASEAN

Updated On: Dec 22, 2006

There seems to be a growing number of reports in the Southeast Asian media highlighting the need for some standards of human rights to be established at the ASEAN level.

Examples of mistreatment of migrant workers in Southeast Asia appear regularly in the ASEAN media. For instance, this week, the Thai National Human Rights Commission and the Lawyers Council of Thailand have announced that they would be filing charges against a fishing fleet operator for allegedly violating the human rights of its trawler crews. In three years, 30 migrant workers and nine Thai crew members died while working in the fleet. On one instance, the crew were left on board in the open sea for three months without an adequate supply of food.

However, the difficulties surrounding the establishment of a regional human rights mechanism in ASEAN are numerous. At the national levels, currently only thePhilippinesMalaysiaThailand and Indonesia have national human rights commissions. It is difficult to see how Myanmar would agree to the establishment of a human rights commission. 

Yet even if these commissions were established, it is uncertain as to their effectiveness. For instance, on Monday (18 December 2006), the Indonesian State Secretary Yusril Ihza Mahendra suggested that victims of human rights abuses should “move on” and use normal legal channels to settle their cases through the district courts and ad hoc human rights tribunal. Yusril’s suggestion came after the Indonesian government announced the end of the selection of members of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In 2004, the Indonesian government had annulled the 2004 law mandating the Commission’s existence.

The difficulties should, nevertheless, not detract us from the fact that the stakes are high. Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda pointed out to the representatives of the other ASEAN members at a roundtable discussion on human rights, “We can’t become ASEAN Community that we have envisaged ourselves to be until and unless the promotion and protection of human rights is pervasive in our region.” The co-Chairman of the ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism Working Group, Marzuki Darusman, suggested a way in which a regional mechanism could be gradually established, “In the beginning the discussion is limited to common policy or consideration but in the next stage a kind of regional jurisdiction can be formed.”

Currently, one visible form of participation in the regional level is the annual ASEAN People’s Assembly (APA). At the 5th APA meeting held in Manila (from 7th December to 9th December), more than 200 participants from non-governmental organisations, academia, media and other civil society groups met to discuss regional issues such as the problems of the haze, labour migration, the problem of HIV/ AIDs and other human security issues.

However, gathering at APA provides only one small part of the equation. The Philippines President Arroyo had originally invited the chairman of APA to present the results of the APA meeting to the ASEAN leaders at the ASEAN Summit. Even if the results were presented in the rescheduled ASEAN Summit in January, would the ASEAN governments take onboard those findings? Braema Mathiaparanam, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, noted that, “In spite of being almost 40 years of age, the grouping’s relevance and identity is lost on most of the 558 million people in the region, many of whom remain poor and cannot see the direct benefit of a regional set-up like ASEAN.”

All the discussion of human rights in ASEAN raises one fundamental dilemma. If the citizens of the individual ASEAN countries cannot have meaningful participation in their respective countries, what hope is there for participation on a regional level?


Talks Continue About ASEAN Commission (Jakarta Post, 19 December 2006)

Alien Labour/ Poll Shows Negative Public Attitudes; Boat Boss Accused of Rights Abuse (Bangkok Post, 19 December 2006)

ASEAN Urged to Catch Up With Other Groupings in Human Rights (Antara, 18 December 2006)

It’s Time to Paint People Into The Picture (New Straits Times, 16 December 2006)

Govt Tells Rights Victims to “Move On” (Jakarta Post, 19 December 2006)

ASEAN ‘Must Listen More’ to Grassroots (Jakarta Post, 9 December 2006)