Human rights defenders are understandably disappointed with the Nov. 13-14 31st ASEAN Summit. Not only were human rights the least of the concerns of the leaders of the member-countries of the Association, it also seemed as if they had come to the Philippines with a pre-arranged agreement to steer clear of any mention of it. After years of dissension, they finally recognized the rights of migrant workers, but were silent on such urgent issues as state-sponsored killings.
As a result of the Association’s studied evasion of the human rights issue, those unfamiliar with the Southeast Asian region are likely to assume that respect for human rights is no problem in the 10-member countries of ASEAN — or that compliance with human rights standards and protocols is so perfect in the region there is hardly any point in discussing it.
That conclusion would of course be mistaken.
In Cambodia, the government of Prime Minister Hung Sen, who has been in power for over 30 years, is harassing human rights activists, curtailing dissent and freedom of expression, shutting down critical newspapers, and fabricating charges against the political opposition. Political killings have also been blamed on state security forces, who almost routinely torture prisoners in their custody.
In Vietnam, political parties other than the ruling party are banned, and freedom of expression, of the press and of association curtailed. There are over a hundred political prisoners whose only offense is criticism of the government, which is forbidden.
Under military rule since a 2014 coup d’etat, Thailand has been suppressing free expression, press freedom, and freedom of assembly. The ruling junta arrested opposition politicians, censored the Internet, abolished the National Assembly and assumed law-making powers. It later created a military-dominated legislature that then elected the coup leader, Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha, prime minister.
Free expression and press freedom are regulated in Singapore, where hanging is still the main form of execution and caning of prisoners for various offenses a standard practice.
But the worst human rights abuses are happening in Myanmar (Burma), where the military has been engaged in ethnic cleansing operations against the Rohingya Muslims since August. Soldiers and their officers have been raping women and young girls, massacring the Rohingya including children, and looting and burning their homes, forcing over half a million men, women and children to flee to Bangladesh. “Democracy icon,” Nobel Peace Prize winner and de facto prime minister Aung San Suu Kyi has not uttered a word of condemnation of what’s happening.
Of course there’s also the Philippines, which if it were not for Myanmar would be first in the roster of human rights violators in the region. It’s the country where human rights groups have documented some 12,000 extrajudicial killings; journalists have been harassed and are still being killed; communities have been bombed for supposedly harboring “insurgents”; people suspected of drug use or involvement in the drug trade are still shot dead; the press is routinely demonized by regime trolls; and some media organizations are singled out for intimidation.
These are happening despite the establishment in 2009 of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), which is supposed to promote and protect human rights in the Association’s member-states of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. There was then some appreciation of the link between human rights and the development of the region to which ASEAN claims to be committed, hence the creation of the Commission.
Unanimously approved by the 10-member countries in 2012, the Commission’s ASEAN Human Rights Declaration proclaims the Association’s adherence to the protection of human rights in Southeast Asia. But human rights groups have criticized both the Commission and the Declaration for their failure to address human rights issues in those countries in violation of universal human rights protocols and even of their own national standards, such as the Philippines.
The Declaration does affirm that human rights are everyone’s entitlement, regardless of gender, age, or social status. It affirms ASEAN’s commitment to the observance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and even describes as inviolable “the right to safe drinking water and sanitation” and the protection of the environment.
But Amnesty International, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the US Department of State (which regularly issues a worldwide human rights report), among other human rights monitors, have criticized the Declaration for, among others, its contradicting the universality of human rights by suggesting that what these are and how they are observed are shaped by differences in history and culture.
It’s the very same argument that looks at human rights as mere traditions drawn from the history and culture of Western countries and therefore inapplicable in Asia and even contrary to “Asian values” rather than as universal human legacies and attributes.
It’s an argument that’s been raised by Singapore, where freedom of expression, of the press and of assembly are regulated — and whose fingerprints are everywhere evident in the Declaration text.
Early this year, the same argument was raised by the Philippines through Mr. Duterte. The Declaration states that “the realization of human rights must be considered in the regional and national contexts.” Other provisions even suggest that each country can have laws contrary to universal human rights standards that should take precedence over the latter.
As approved by all 10-member countries, the Declaration actually makes their compliance with human rights standards impossible to demand. If each country has the prerogative to decide whether those standards are consistent with its laws, customs and culture, no one can take issue with it should it be in violation of, say the right to free expression, or the right to life. Neither does it protect minority groups, the marginalized, or the communities being singled out for persecution such as the Rohingya, or, for that matter, the Lumads of the Philippines, whose schools the Duterte regime has threatened to bomb and who are being driven from their ancestral lands, as well as farmers killed for their advocacy of agrarian reform.
And yet, in addition to their civilizing value, respect for and observance of human rights standards are also crucial to the authentic development to which ASEAN is supposedly committed, but has failed to deliver despite its 50-year existence. The realization of that goal needs the ideas, creativity and energies of the 600 million people of Southeast Asia. It cannot be the task solely of the few who govern or rule each country, and who often use their power only to enrich themselves.
Without free expression, for example, the ideas that could otherwise contribute to the making of policies that will truly develop the societies and the peoples of Southeast Asia will remain untapped, while those policies meant only for elite aggrandizement rather than everyone’s betterment will remain unexposed and uncriticized.
There is an indisputable connection between human rights and human development. But is development in that sense what the leaders of ASEAN and their non-Southeast Asian patrons have in mind when they claim that “development” is the Association’s reason for being? Or is the real aim to preserve rather than change the status of the poor countries of the region as sources of cheap labor, as markets for the finished products of such industrialized countries as the US, Japan, Australian and China, and as pawns and military outposts in furtherance of US imperialism’s aim to contain its rising imperialist rival China?
If the answer to these questions, particularly the last, is a resounding “yes,” it explains why there’s no place for human rights in ASEAN.
US President Donald Trump after all practically affirmed in his speech prior to his departure last week that the Philippines’ true value lies in its strategic role in the achievement of US military aims in Asia. That was the reason behind his taking the time and effort to visit this prime piece of real estate. It wasn’t for the sake of human rights. And it certainly wasn’t for human development, but for the exact opposite.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro). The views expressed in Vantage Point are his own and do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.
Published in Busiess World
No. 24, 2017