JAKARTA – Southeast Asian leaders meeting in Singapore this week must address pressing regional human rights concerns, including by taking steps to reform and strengthen ASEAN’s human rights mechanisms. That was the call from ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) today in a letter to heads of state in advance of the 32nd ASEAN Summit.
“As regional integration proceeds, it is imperative for ASEAN to ensure that a focus on human rights is included in all pillars and sectors of the organization. ASEAN must also strengthen the protection mandates of its human rights bodies, if it seeks to be seen as a credible and outward-looking regional bloc,” the letter reads.
The letter comes on the heels of a series of setbacks for democracy and human rights in Southeast Asia in the past 12 months. APHR has previously highlighted concerning situations in a number of countries, including a brutal military campaign in Myanmar against the minority Rohingya, an unprecedented assault on independent civil society and the opposition in Cambodia, and attacks on press freedom from governments across the region.
“In the last year, we have seen an especially alarming regression of democracy and human rights protections region-wide. It is deeply worrying that ASEAN has largely stood by silently as the problems have mounted, and that mechanisms such as the AICHR and ACWC still lack the mandate or capacity to properly address them,” said APHR Chairperson Charles Santiago.
Singapore, as Chair of the bloc for 2018, has prioritized efforts to address emerging security challenges and promote economic integration through innovation, which are expected to be key themes for discussion at the upcoming Summit on 26-28 April. While supportive of these priorities, APHR emphasized in its letter the importance of addressing these challenges holistically.
Parliamentarians stressed the need to tackle a broad set of emerging security concerns, including those that emanate from a lack of accountability and adherence to the rule of law within states, highlighting, in particular, the plight of the Rohingya.
“In recent weeks, Malaysia and Indonesia have seen the arrival of boats carrying Rohingya fleeing longstanding persecution in Myanmar; this is clearly a regional concern. ASEAN can help put an end to this crisis, but it must address rights abuses in tandem with the multitude of other security challenges concerning member states,” said Indonesian MP Eva Kusuma Sundari, an APHR Board member.
In the context of economic integration, MPs highlighted concerns about the rights of local communities, including indigenous communities, as well as the need for better safeguards for migrant workers, calling on ASEAN leaders to ensure that the ASEAN Community is able to become a truly people-centered one.
“As ASEAN’s integration effort accelerates, we must push harder for economic development that is inclusive and sustainable. It’s time for ASEAN to send a strong message that economic growth at the expense of the welfare of the people, is unacceptable and cannot be considered progress at all,” Charles Santiago argued.
MPs also urged their leaders to return to and strengthen core elements of the ASEAN Charter, adopted during Singapore’s previous Chairmanship in 2007.
“This is an opportune time for Singapore to continue what it started and take the lead towards achieving the human rights aspirations laid out in the Charter,” Eva Sundari concluded.
“The ASEAN Charter mandates that member states respect and promote democracy, good governance, sustainable development, and human rights, honorable promises that ring hollow unless proper mechanisms are put in place, including the identification and implementation of strategic indicators.”