Human Rights Norms and the Evolution of ASEAN: Moving without Moving in a Changing Regional Environment

By Narine, Shaun | Contemporary Southeast Asia, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Human Rights Norms and the Evolution of ASEAN: Moving without Moving in a Changing Regional Environment


Narine, Shaun, Contemporary Southeast Asia


During the Cold War era, the traditional Westphalian understanding of sovereignty protected the right of governments to deal with human rights as they saw fit within the borders of their own state. Despite the existence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Bill of Human Rights, the international community made no serious effort to force signatory states to respect the obligations associated with those documents. A lack of international consensus on what those obligations were and how to prioritize different sets of rights compounded the problem. (1)

With the end of the Cold War, Western states--particularly the United States--aggressively promoted the spread of liberal economic values and practices and argued that these economic values would facilitate the spread of associated political and social ideals. European states also began linking human rights considerations to economic and trade agreements, at least rhetorically. Some Asian governments pushed back against this Western pressure, giving rise to the "Asian values debate" which centred on the claim of some Asian leaders that Asian people preferred being governed by soft authoritarian, collectivist-oriented states rather than the individualist, liberal democratic structures advocated by the West. This governmental effort at staking out a distinctive Asian position towards human rights faltered in the wake of the Asian Economic Crisis of 1997-99. (2)

The development of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) provides an interesting example of how the debate between state sovereignty versus human rights (and democracy) has evolved in the Asia-Pacific region. The principle of Westphalian state sovereignty is the cornerstone of ASEAN's institutional structure. While other regional organizations have provisions to intervene in the affairs of member states under extraordinary conditions, ASEAN still refuses to take this step. (3) Nonetheless, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, there are indications that ASEAN is shifting its approach towards state sovereignty. The ASEAN Charter speaks of the need for member states to respect human rights and protect and promote democracy. In October 2009, ASEAN launched the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) to monitor the human rights conduct of its member states. The AICHR is currently working on developing an ASEAN Declaration on Human Rights, in what human rights NGOs have criticized as a highly secretive process. (4) The AICHR developed an ASEAN Declaration on Human Rights, in what NGOs criticized as a highly secretive process. The AICHR presented the Declaration to ASEAN in November 2012. The Declaration has been criticized by human rights groups for being too deferential to state power. (5) In 2010, ASEAN created the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC). These developments were accompanied by a number of other measures designed to enhance human rights in Southeast Asia. (6)

This paper argues that ASEAN's recent shift towards creating a more robust regional human rights regime is less substantive than it appears. The central argument is that ASEAN's moves towards promoting human rights are an important part of a larger regional strategy to rejuvenate and re-legitimize ASEAN. The growth of democracy and the spread of international norms of human rights have had some effect in the region. However, these influences are relatively minor and outweighed by the domestic political and economic requirements of the member states. The paper is divided into three parts. Part one examines the history of the regional human rights debate leading to the emergence of the AICHR. The paper argues that ASEAN's fairly abrupt shift towards supporting the AICHR reflected the member states' political interest in revitalizing ASEAN. The second part of the paper considers the possibilities that ASEAN's shift was due to pressure from the West or a desire on the part of ASEAN states to emulate the presumed human rights orientation of the Western powers. …

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