Self-Inflicted Harm: The ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights

By Caryl Thompson - 21 December 2012
Self-Inflicted Harm: The ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights

ASEAN Human Rights Declaration Provokes Controversy

Since its inception in 1967, the ten-member Southeast Asian alliance, ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) has focused on promoting regional co-operation, regional identity and trade links. For the most part, the human rights of its 600 million inhabitants have failed to attract the Association’s attention.

The ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights announced recently at the ASEAN leaders’ 21st summit held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, would, therefore, ostensibly appear to be a positive new direction for the organisation. However, rather than welcoming this development, civil society and grassroots groups across the region and globally have united in criticising the document. The U.S. Department of State has announced that “we are deeply concerned that many of the ASEAN Declaration’s principles and articles could weaken and erode universal human rights and fundamental freedoms as contained in the UDHR [UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights]”.

That such opposing views have developed in a region that is increasingly regarded as pivotal in International Relations should be a cause for concern. By adopting a rigorous non-interventionist approach to human rights violations in other member states, are the nations of ASEAN simply recognizing the sovereignty of others or could they be unwittingly fostering conditions that may threaten their own security?

The mutual recognition of sovereignty adopted by ASEAN members is fundamental to its decision-making processes, encapsulated by “consultation and consensus ” and an enduring principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states. Thus while espousing the rhetoric of human rights, the Declaration firmly maintains that it is the responsibility of individual sovereign member states to establish and maintain freedom and rights for their national citizens, a principle to which several appear reluctant to commit.

As a result the Declaration has been denounced as “culturally relativist” with domestic laws superseding universal principles of freedoms and basic rights. While such external critiques may be dismissed by the members of ASEAN, they cannot ignore the more immediate internal consequences of their adopted position and the very real possibility that human rights violations in one member state will have potential repercussions for the security of others.

To Interfere or Not to Interfere: The Rohingya Question

One example of the unintended consequences of the communal silence that ASEAN has adopted on human rights violations by member states is demonstrated by the spill-over effects of the ethnic tensions that have erupted and the resultant state-sponsored repression in the Rakhine district of Western Myanmar.

The ethnic and religious tensions currently engulfing Rakhine state, a strip of land on Myanmar’s western coast are a legacy of British colonialism. Under British rule, thousands of Bengalis from the neighbouring region that today is Bangladesh were encouraged to migrate to the Rakhine area largely as indentured labour. This predominantly Muslim community who have lived in the area for generations and those that have followed them more recently, the Rohingya, are currently caught in a cycle of violence of lethal intensity with the indigenous, largely Buddhist majority.

While tensions have existed historically between the communities and violence has occurred previously, the government has been firm in resisting international demands for a peaceful resolution to the current situation and has deflected criticism by portraying the situation as a domestic issue.

The Myanmar government only recognizes as citizens those who were settled in the country prior to independence in 1948. Those unable to meet these stringent criteria are denied citizenship and are effectively stateless, condemned as illegal immigrants and denied basic human rights.

Following the rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman in the region in May 2012 , a humanitarian crisis has developed in which both Rohingya and Buddhist communities have acted with lethal mutual animosity. Inter-communal violence has led to the killing of hundreds; thousands of homes and many villages have been destroyed. The UN estimates that over 100,000 Rohingya have been forcibly displaced to camps and villages along the Bangladeshi border, where conditions have been described by the UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Baroness Amos as “dire” .

So what has been ASEAN’s response to this humanitarian crisis in its own back yard given its recent Declaration of Human Rights?

Following the Phnom Penh summit, the ASEAN Chairman’s statement of November 18, 2012 offered support for the “humanitarian challenges” arising from the violence in Rakhine state but fell short of overt criticism of the Myanmar government. Indeed, in a joint statement following a subsequent meeting two days later with US President, Barack Obama, ASEAN leaders “welcomed positive steps being taken in Myanmar that could facilitate national reconciliation, and encouraged further progress towards a democratic and open political and economic system ”, thereby heaping praise on the Myanmar regime for its apparent move towards democratization whilst ignoring the systematic human rights abuses that continue within the state.

However, the impact of the situation in the Rakhine district has repercussions beyond Myanmar’s national borders and affects other ASEAN members.

Shooting Yourself in the Foot ASEAN–style

While, as noted above, many Rohingya have sought refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh, others have fled further afield for sanctuary in Malaysia, another ASEAN member also predominantly Muslim, which has become a preferred destination for those seeking a safe haven from the violence. The UNHCR in Malaysia estimates that there are approximately 25,000 Rohingya in Malaysia, but other estimates put the numbers much higher at around 90,000.

While Malaysian Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, has expressed concern about the plight of the Rohingya community in Myanmar and called for the “violence committed against them to be stopped immediately” in a speech to the UMNO General Assembly on 29th November, 2012, his country faces the predicament of having to receive sudden large inflows of displaced Rohingya into the community.

Moreover, as Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Convention for Refugees, the Rohingya in Malaysia are denied official access to temporary employment, medical and health services and education, thereby further undermining their human security. Furthermore, concerns have been expressed that the desperate conditions facing the Rohingya could lead to radicalization.

While criticism has been targeted at the recent ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights for apparently privileging domestic laws over universal principles, it could also be argued that the Declaration is myopic and self-defeating. While upholding the inviolability of state jurisdiction on human rights issues, it fails to recognize that the effects of human rights violations cannot necessarily be confined within national borders and may have ramifications that affect other members, as the current situation emanating in Myanmar all too sadly demonstrates. If the members of ASEAN are really dedicated to human rights for all the peoples of the region then a more critical stance may be called for.


Caryl Thompson is a researcher with the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the University of Nottingham.

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