Human rights must become a priority for ASEAN

Amanda Abrams
Freedom House
10 Jan 07

During its annual meeting later this week, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should join the ranks of those major intergovernmental organizations that have institutionalized their commitments to human rights and democracy, Freedom House said today.

An initiative on the table during the upcoming January 10-15 meeting in the Philippines is the development of an ASEAN charter, which currently does not exist. ASEAN’s “Eminent Persons Group” has drawn up a draft charter that mentions the importance of democracy and human rights, and former Philippines President Fidel Ramos, a member of the group, has proposed establishing principles within the charter that allow for sanctions against member states that violate human rights and democratic standards. Some civil society groups have gone further by pushing for a provision in the charter that establishes a formal body that can try human rights cases in the region.

“To achieve its stated mission to “accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development,” ASEAN must begin to address the serious human rights issues of some of its members, such as Burma,” said Jennifer Windsor, Executive Director of Freedom House. “Other regional organizations were also founded with a goal of greater economic cooperation. Most of them have since discovered that cooperation on economic matters is best fostered when members also share basic political principles, such as adherence to human rights and democratic principles,” she added.

ASEAN is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The organization’s founding document, the Bangkok Declaration, makes no mention of human rights and democracy, and the organization has been frequently criticized for its policy of noninterference in member states’ domestic affairs. This has given rise to the discussion among Asian political leaders and democratic activists about modernizing ASEAN’s structures.

Other regional organizations have binding human rights mechanisms that can effectively address human rights abuses and democratic lapses occurring within member states. The Organization of American States, for example, has language in its charter that allows for the suspension of a member state during specific breaches of democracy, as well as a separate Democracy Charter that outlines members’ obligation to promote and defend democracy. The OAS also has a legal system under which complaints can be addressed; this includes the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC), composed of twelve southern African nations, also stresses the importance of democracy and human rights in its treaty. This commitment takes the form of the organization’s Parliamentary Forum, an inter-parliamentary body that has developed electoral norms and standards, and conducts programs on democracy and governance.

Similarly, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) states that “pluralistic democracy and rule of law are essential for ensuring respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) conducts election observation missions and monitors human rights issues within member states.

Four of ASEAN’s ten member countries were ranked Not Free in the 2006 edition of Freedom House’s annual survey of political rights and civil liberties, Freedom in the World. Burma receives the region’s lowest score and is its most notorious human rights abuser. Also included on the list are Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.

ASEAN member nations are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Freedom House, an independent non-governmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom in the world, has monitored political rights and civil liberties in every country in the world since 1972.

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