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Human rights and security in ASEAN: Fallen by the wayside?

19 Jun Human rights and security in ASEAN: Fallen by the wayside?

With its 2015 deadline approaching, just how much ground has been covered towards building an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Community? Blueprints for the three pillars of economic integration, political and security cooperation, and socio-cultural cohesion have already been drawn up for implementation by member states. However, critics are increasingly concerned about the limited progress in areas like human rights and cooperative security.

Backpedalling on human rights

Established in 2009, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) is a consultative body comprising ASEAN representatives. Since its formation, AICHR has been criticised for its lack of transparency and facilitation of regional cooperation in human rights. The regional body is also not accessible to the civil society. Despite protests from human rights groups on the ongoing rights abuse in Myanmar, the role of the AICHR remains small. More recently, international activists have criticised ASEAN states for seemingly turning a blind eye to the grave concerns regarding possible human rights violation of the thousands of repatriated Cambodian migrant labourers. More than 100,000 returned back to Cambodia due to fears of being arrested by the Thai army – posing further challenges to establishing an integrated ASEAN labour market.

Experts explain that this inaction is due to ASEAN’s policy of non-interference in internal matters. Regardless of regional leaders’ views, ASEAN remains impartial. In a recent report to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Asia Legal Resource Centre has urged ASEAN to do more. It recommends that ASEAN states “have the moral capacity to take a political decision that, irrespective of all denominators such as religion, region, race, and even political affinities, each life within their jurisdictions will be protected and preserved at all costs”. Hopefully, AICHR can overcome the governmental inertia and garner more political support – to make some headway in the building of the socio-cultural pillar.

Moving slow on regional security

Besides human rights, cooperative security in Southeast Asia also remains underdeveloped to deal with an increasingly complex security landscape. For instance, radicalisation and violent extremism are posing an increasing danger to sub-regional peace and security. Last year, religious tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar spilled over to neighbouring countries, indicating the region’s vulnerability to transboundary threats. Currently, the conflict in the South China Sea is developing into a major political and security crisis, with anti-Chinese protests spiralling out of control in Vietnam. Analysts anticipate further escalation in tensions due to the difficulty and delays in adopting an official and legally-binding “Code of Conduct”, putting regional stability at serious risk.

This calls for better progress in regional security. ASEAN has much to do in terms of reviewing security laws and enhancing cooperation to build up an effective regional defence against emerging threats. The grouping needs to move beyond confidence building to preventive diplomacy and conflict resolution, especially in the ongoing South China Sea disputes.

Without strong commitment and continued progress on these fronts, the much-heralded ASEAN Community could fall by the wayside come 2015.



Philippines calls for freeze on actions in South China Sea [Channel Newsasia, 16 June 2014]

Chaos at Thai-Cambodian border [Bangkok Post, 15 June 2014]

ASEAN’s House of Horrors [The Diplomat, 13 June 2014]