Inaction by consensus: Will ASEAN change course to address human rights abuses?

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte poses for a photo with the foreign ministers from participating countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers Meeting during its closing ceremony at the Philippine International Convention Center in Pasay City on August 8, 2017. RICHARD MADELO/PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO

ASEAN is approaching a defining moment. Will it allow regional human rights abuses to undermine its power as a supranational body, or will it abandon its policy of non-intervention?


As ASEAN heads of state convene for their 33rd Summit this week in Singapore, the group stands at a moment of crisis. Member states allow ever-worsening attacks on human rights while the regional bloc stands by, ineffective and unable to work with governments to end the abuses. ASEAN has clung to its aging policy of non-intervention but it’s time to let go.

Ethnic cleansing in Myanmar and Duterte’s bloody drug war have been internationally condemned, while widespread attacks on freedom of the press and freedom of expression continue in Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. When human rights abuses like these come to light and ASEAN fails to act, its accountability and transparency begins to crumble. These failures throw the future of any cooperation among ASEAN, even on economic integration, into uncertainty.

If the coalition hopes to remain relevant and to ever address its continuing crises, ASEAN must change tactics around its political and social pillars. ASEAN must build a discourse in which the heads of members states can cooperate to support social justice, political legitimacy and human rights without appearing as though they are risking their sovereignty.

The coalition has done this for economic cooperation—states are all too happy to accept foreign incursions in the form of massive loans and development megaprojects. The same approach to interdependence and a respect for norms just might work for human rights.

ASEAN’s inaction signals the need for a new mandate

ASEAN entered this moment of crisis with a policy of little more than inaction by consensus. In late 2017, as ethnic cleansing displaced over 700,000 Rohingya and ASEAN failed to act, civil society raised fundamental questions about the organization’s effectiveness. But it was not only civil society that questioned whether it was time for ASEAN to change its role.

As early as 2015, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights was pushing the coalition to work actively and openly with the Myanmar government to prevent a crisis in Rakhine. It labelled the Rohingya crisis a challenge and a call to action for ASEAN.

“The time for hiding behind the veil of non-interference is over,” said Charles Santiago, Chairperson of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) and Malaysian Member of Parliament. That was three years ago. Today, any Rohingya who return to Myanmar still face threats to their fundamental rights.

Duterte’s role as ASEAN Chairman during the peak of the Rohingya crisis undeniably played a role in the bloc’s failure to adapt and respond effectively. At the ASEAN Summit in Manila in 2017, two member states raised the issue of the Rohingya but no documents or statements from the Summit even addressed the issue.

There was similar silence from ASEAN on Duterte’s war on drugs and political opponents

Unsurprisingly, that summit similarly skirted the issue of Duterte’s drug war and the 12,000 people killed on his watch. The violence continues today: this month Ben Ramos, the head of the National Union of People’s Lawyers, became the 34th lawyer to be killed since Duterte came to power. The Philippine state has also sought to quash dissenting voices, most recently through a trumped-up tax evasion case against news outlet The Rappler.

Despite Duterte’s routine human rights abuses, the Philippines has recently won a seat at the UN Human Rights Council—an international body with a mandate to push the exact sort of international cooperation to which Duterte has turned his back.

Duterte rejects international criticism of his domestic “drug policy” and has baulked at the idea of intervention from another party. But he welcomed Australian intervention in supporting the Filipino military in its fight against the Islamic State in Marawi.

The Philippine President has rebuffed all foreign pressure to stop the drug war killings with a simple argument, emblematic of many government’s objections to liberal internationalism: “When you are a foreigner, you do not know exactly what is happening to this country,” he said at the November 2017 ASEAN Summit.

To respond to crises like Duterte’s drug war, ASEAN need not refute this argument. The coalition must simply offer support for the citizens of member states in their right to self-determination.

ASEAN can work with member states to end human rights abuses under the social and political pillars of ASEAN, just as it works to support economic integration while respecting the nations’ rights to self-determination.

ASEAN economic integration provides a framework and points of leverage

The regional bloc already has the tools to influence the internal affairs of member states—agreeing to revoke economic privileges, impose sanctions, curtail trade, or restrict their role in negotiations with international powers (Japan, China and the US).

ASEAN has built these points of leverage through economic integration. By signing initiatives such as the new Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC) 2025 or the ASEAN Power Grid, member states already accept a level of mutual dependence. This mutual dependence provides the basis for a diplomacy that could push member states to respect human rights and their citizens’ own right to self-determination.

ASEAN’s policy of non-intervention stems from concerns about infringing on states’ sovereignty. But member states have been only too happy to erode their own sovereignty for economic gain. They have implemented China’s Belt-and-Road Initiative projects and economic corridors that have had severe impacts on their sovereignty. These impacts come primarily in the form of crippling debt and naked assertions of soft power—as is evident in the US$6 billion Sino-Laos rail project or Japan’s Partnership for Quality Infrastructure and its role in Myanmar’s National Electricity Master Plan.

Today, ASEAN’s inaction has allowed rampant human rights violations across multiple member states and led it to a defining moment. Will heads of state allow the legitimacy of the regional powerhouse to slip away? Or will they prove that ASEAN can actually work with member states to address their civil and political issues?

The responsibility to enforce human rights norms is fully within ASEAN’s mandate. It’s just a question of whether the organization will choose to serve only the interests of those in power or to plot a new course to prove that it’s committed to serving the needs of ASEAN’s people, especially those silenced and marginalized by their governments.

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