The Last Frontier of Human Rights Protection: Interrogating Resistance to Regional Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific

Article excerpt

Abstract

Asia and the Pacific are the only regions in the world which are yet to establish cooperative regional mechanisms for the promotion and protection of human rights. This article briefly outlines the existing scope of human rights protections in the region. It then interrogates common explanations for the Asia-Pacific's reluctance to institutionalise regional protection of human rights, including that the region is too diverse for uniform standards; contrarily, that 'Asian values' differ from western 'international human rights standards'; that principles of sovereignty and non-intervention preclude external scrutiny; arid that Asians have a cultural preference for conciliation over adjudication, ruling out quasi-judicial methods for protecting human rights. This article draws upon the experiences of establishing regional mechanisms in the Americas, Europe and Africa to demonstrate that claims about the uniqueness of the Asian experience are often exaggerated or inaccurate. Asian exceptionalism on human rights questions is often more fruitfully explained as an expression of strategic policy choices by Asian governments to avoid strengthening human rights protections, rather than by any inherent truths about the unsuitability of rights and institutions to Asian traditions, values, diversity or cultural preferences. This article draws lessons from other regions concerning the prospects for regional and institutional cooperation on human rights in the Asia-Pacific, including as regards the establishment of regional charters, commissions and courts.

Introduction

While regional mechanisms for human rights protection were established in Europe in 1950, (1) the Americas from 1959, (2) Africa from 1981, (3) and among Arab States from 2004, (4) the Asia--Pacific has Long been the last frontier of regional cooperation. (5) Despite calls by Asian leaders in 1903 to 'explore the possibilities of establishing regional arrangements for the promotion and protection of human rights in Asia', (6) the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ('ASEAN') only committed to creating a human rights body in its Chatter of November 2007 and established the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights ('AICHR') in October 2009. (7) Despite that significant step, the AICHR is entrusted with far fewer powers than the regional human rights bodies in the Americas, Europe and Africa. Beyond the limited club of South-East Asian States, there is no subregional mechanism for the Pacific, North and East Asia, or South Asia. Other intergovernmental networks in the region have devoted little attention to human rights, Whether through the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation ('SAARC'), Asia Pacific Cooperation ('APEC'), Pacific Islands Forum ('PIF'), or Shanghai Cooperation Organisation ('SCO').

The purpose of this article is to interrogate common explanations for the Asia-Pacific's reluctance to institutionalise regional protection of human rights. Such explanations typically include that the region is too diverse to subscribe to uniform standards; contrarily, that 'Asian values' differ from western 'international human rights standards'; that principles of sovereignty and non-intervention preclude external scrutiny; and that Asians have a cultural preference for conciliation over adjudication, ruling out quasi-judicial methods for protecting human rights. This article examines these common explanations by drawing upon the experiences of establishing regional mechanisms in the Americas, Europe and Africa. The comparision with other geographical regions contextualises the debate in the Asia-Pacific and shows that claims about the uniqueness of the Asian experience are often exaggerated or inaccurate. Asian exceptionalism on human rights questions is often more fruitfully explained as an expression of strategic policy choices by Asian governments to avoid strengthening human rights protections, rather than by any inherent truths about the unsuitability of rights and institutions to Asian traditions, values, diversity or cultural preferences. …