Time for a New US-ASEAN Human Rights Dialogue
U.S. President Barack Obama participating in the East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 2015.
Image Credit: Flickr/Pocket News

Time for a New US-ASEAN Human Rights Dialogue

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Ahead of next week’s U.S.-ASEAN summit at California’s Sunnylands retreat, human rights groups and others are calling on President Barack Obama to use the occasion to publicly raise concerns about human rights and democratic regression in Southeast Asia.

While human rights must be on the agenda at Sunnylands and should be amplified in the U.S.-ASEAN relationship, a focus only on Southeast Asia – ignoring human rights concerns in the United States – would be unprincipled and likely counterproductive. An authentic and balanced U.S.-ASEAN relationship should address human rights concerns in both ASEAN and the United States.

And to ensure that human rights are a genuine, core tenet of the U.S.-ASEAN relationship, such discussions should be formalized in a regular U.S.-ASEAN “Human Rights Dialogue.”

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U.S. Pivot to Asia

As the United States continues to “rebalance” its foreign policy toward Asia, strengthening its already significant economic, security and political ties in the region in the face of China’s influence, the promotion of human rights should become central to these efforts, including in the U.S.-ASEAN bilateral relationship.

All states, including the United States, have moral – and arguably legal – responsibilities to promote human rights abroad. Improved respect for human rights across the globe helps avert instability and conflict and encourages development and prosperity.

The promotion of human rights and democracy by the United States bolsters its reputation in the eyes of many in Asia, setting the country apart from China. The exercise of human rights “soft power” may be particularly important to build trust in Southeast Asia, where, historically, U.S. foreign policy has had disastrous consequences (and related to which, the United States still claims war-time debt repayments from Cambodia).

Human rights in Southeast Asia

Since Obama announced the “strategic pivot” to Asia during his 2009 visit to Japan, there have been some human rights gains in Southeast Asia.

Most celebrated is the democratic transition in Myanmar, which has surprised many, with peaceful elections held in November 2015 and a partial handover of power from military to civilian rule now underway. Yet very serious human rights problems continue, including the jailing of peaceful activists, persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority and abuses in on-going ethnic conflicts.

The current trend in Southeast Asia is an undeniable regression in democracy and respect for human rights. The toothless regional human rights body – the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights – is apparently powerless to take action.

The ruling communist parties of Vietnam and Laos remain as intolerant as ever to political dissent and religious minorities. Hundreds of prisoners of conscience remain in Vietnam’s jails.

Since mid-2014, Thailand has been under military rule, with respect for freedom of expression in free-fall and elections continually pushed back.

Malaysian authorities continue to persecute government critics, including in the context of the 1MBD corruption scandal, and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has again been locked up.

Cambodia’s massive, mostly-peaceful protests in 2013 are a distant memory amid surging repression against critics. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy has again been forced into exile, and there have even been threats of retaliation against the opposition should the Cambodian-American diaspora in the U.S. organize peaceful protests around the Sunnylands summit.

Even some of the democracies considered human rights leaders in the region have strayed. Thailand no longer falls under this category, of course. Indonesia has seen a resumption of executions, attacks against minority religious groups and on-going discrimination against women.

Human rights in the United States

While Obama should call for concrete action to address these human rights concerns in Southeast Asia, ASEAN leaders should have the opportunity to do the same with the United States.

The continued failure of the United States to close Guantanamo Bay prison and the past use of torture against suspected terrorists are among the wrongdoings of the West alleged in extremists’ recruitment propaganda in ASEAN and elsewhere.

The United States is one of the world’s top five executioners, sharing this dubious accolade with China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Over half of death row inmates in the United States are African-American, Hispanic, Asian or Indigenous, and discrimination against minorities plagues other elements of the country’s criminal justice system. The United States also jails more youths than any other country and stands alone in the world in refusing to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

To ensure that discussions on human rights at Sunnylands are meaningful and constructive, the U.S. and ASEAN member governments should treat each other as equals prepared to listen even when they do not like what they are hearing. The approach of only one side lecturing the other is bound to fail, particularly as China looks on.

Further, in order for human rights to be a constant theme of the U.S.-ASEAN relationship – a priority pillar in the U.S.-ASEAN strategic partnership launched at the end of 2015 – such discussions on human rights should be institutionalized.

A U.S.-ASEAN Human Rights Dialogue

At Sunnylands, the United States and ASEAN should establish a new “Human Rights Dialogue” as a mutual mechanism for raising human rights concerns, proposing and agreeing on action and offering cooperation and support.

This mechanism could take the form of an annual high-level summit on human rights between the United States and ASEAN member governments, with agreed priority areas for discussion, action and benchmarks for progress. Discussions should take place in the framework of and with reference to international human rights law and standards. Other parties, including other ASEAN dialogue partner states, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and other UN agencies, civil society groups, development organizations and business corporations could be invited to participate or observe. The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights would play a coordinating role.

More thought about the workings of such a mechanism is needed. There may be legitimate concern that such human rights rights dialogues can separate human rights from other aspects of bilateral relationships, rather than embed them. But at the moment, human rights appear marginalized in the U.S.-ASEAN relationship – the establishment of a Human Rights Dialogue mechanism could help address this.

A regular summit on human rights could allow governments, civil society participants and others to properly prepare in a concerted, planned effort to address human rights concerns. For ASEAN, it could encourage cooperation on region-wide human rights issues and the development of region-wide solutions, around refugees, human trafficking and business and human rights, for example. Reports of discussions, commitments and benchmarks agreed at each such summit would make it easier to track progress.

Above all, the establishment of a Human Rights Dialogue would help ensure that human rights remain firmly on the agenda and a priority in the U.S.-ASEAN relationship, and would be a fitting way to mark the historic summit at Sunnylands.

Ou Virak (@ouvirak) is the Cambodian-American founder and Chief Executive of the Future Forum think tank and the former President of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. Rupert Abbott (@RupertBAbbott) is a British lawyer and human rights consultant and the former Deputy Asia-Pacific Director at Amnesty International, where he led research on Southeast Asia. Catherine Morris (@CatherineMorris) is a Canadian lawyer and academic and the founder of Peacemakers Trust, a non-profit organization for research and education on peacebuilding and conflict transformation. She has written and lectured on dispute resolution and human rights in several countries in Southeast Asia.

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