The Politics of Human Rights in Southeast Asia

By Philip J. Eldridge | Go to book overview

Introduction

Political conflict surrounding human rights in Southeast Asia has intensified since the end of the Cold War, especially since the recent regional economic crisis. Conceptions of human rights are inevitably controversial, as they reach to the heart of a society's cultural and political identity. This book explores key themes influencing policy and discourse in a contextualised study linking international, regional and domestic politics across the ten Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries plus Australia. States' responses to international human rights law expressed via United Nations (UN) human rights instruments provide a primary frame of reference.

Key themes relate to the universality or relativity of human rights, tensions between national sovereignty and international human rights law, and comparing approaches to integrating human rights, democracy and economic development. Complexities of democratic transition in Southeast Asia and the political fallout from the regional economic crisis also feature strongly. The impact of religious ideas on human rights is taken up in selected country contexts.

Both the concept and application of universal human rights have been extensively challenged in Southeast Asia. Some governments see them as potentially threatening their national sovereignty, unity and stability, and emphasis on civil and political aspects of human rights in international discourse as tending to downgrade the priority they accord to economic development. Their concerns were articulated in the early 1990s through 'Asian values' and 'Asian democracy' paradigms. These deny universality and assert the relative nature of human rights, based on countries' unique culture, institutions and history. Such ideas have in turn been challenged by civil society groups, as legitimising authoritarian rule. Most groups nevertheless reject exclusion of social and economic rights in western neo-liberal formulations.

The politics of human rights in Southeast Asia entail a complex balance between diffuse domestic and external pressures. Post-colonial ASEAN governments, though historically resistant to universalist discourse based on international human rights law, have been increasingly obliged since the end of the Cold War to incorporate human rights into their objectives, policy frameworks and conceptions of national interest. Resulting inconsistencies are drawn out in the narrative. Civil society groups, though often championing human rights, are also

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