Towards a Human Rights Regime in Southeast Asia: Charting the Course of State Commitment

Article excerpt


Today, in Southeast Asia, redress of human rights violations may be far from being realized. However, following the Asian financial crisis in 1997 there has been modest progress in terms of the proliferation of discourse on human rights and democracy throughout the region. (1) More arguments have also been propounded to tailor human rights language, culture, and its implementation to local contexts and sensitivities. (2) But Southeast Asian governments have continued to regard human rights as an ambivalent subject in national development. (3) At the same time, they have been forced to engage with the issue, for a variety of reasons--from paying lip-service to an increasingly assertive public demand for accountability to using it as a means for shoring-up political credibility in a climate of regional economic uncertainty, to building up an image more acceptable to prevailing international norms. While the debate on whether human rights is a universal or relativistic norm rages on, different elements are shapi ng a new climate for human rights understanding and advocacy. For example, the imminent manifestation of an International Security Order in the wake of the terrorist attacks in the United States on 11. September 2001 will leave both critics and defenders of universal human rights groping for renewed answers to an old issue. The pervasiveness of the discourse on security over respect for human freedom has now become one of the stumbling blocks against progress in human rights, replacing the previous divisiveness stemming from the "universalist versus relativist" debates, with authoritarian states promoting the position of the latter. (4) Post-September 11 has turned out to be an opportunity for the nation-state to exert its sovereignty even more forcefully and to sideline the agendas of the global normative movement, one of which being human rights, to a token concern.

The purpose of this article is to look at the dynamics of the human rights question by examining the role played by the state in furthering the human rights agenda within Southeast Asia. The article is divided into two areas of discussion. The first is on the prospect of a regional body such as ASEAN playing a more committed role in establishing a human rights regime. The assessment of this issue revolves round whether the regional organization, with its avowed stance on noninterference, has responded favourably and accordingly to the human rights challenge. The second area of discussion is on the four government-established national human rights institutions currently existing in ASEAN. (5) Are these nationally established human rights commissions significantly different from one another, and what have been their successes and failures? It is the contention of this article that a human rights regime is difficult to foster in the region because its very existence will be seen to undermine the concept of the strong, autonomous, and economically-sound nation-state that Southeast Asian governments have traditionally promoted. By assessing the functions and performance of Southeast Asian national human rights commissions, the article provides evidence of a strong state-centric resistance against the setting up of an effective human rights regime. In fact, the contestation for a human rights regime has always involved nation-states battling against their domestic civil society and an international movement pushing for a normative global order. The discussion will attempt to draw out this particular dynamic and concludes with some reflections on the future of human rights advocacy in Southeast Asia.

The Prospect for Human Rights within the ASEAN Rubric

ASEAN's early successes were largely related to its role as a regional mechanism operating within the context of Cold War politics. Despite the potentially destabilizing impact of the war in Vietnam, the founding member-countries of ASEAN successfully remained as peaceful and independent entities. …


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