On 50th anniversary of ASEAN’s founding, MPs urge regional grouping to evolve, improve rights mechanisms

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JAKARTA — The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) must strengthen regional mechanisms to promote and protect human rights and ensure that all members of the ASEAN community can enjoy the benefits of regional prosperity, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said today. Otherwise, the regional grouping will continue failing to live up to the promises it has made since its founding.

The collective of Southeast Asian lawmakers spoke out on the 50th anniversary of the founding of ASEAN, celebrating the milestone while emphasizing the need for the bloc to evolve and review its charter in order to address a range of pressing challenges, including by reassessing its principle of ‘non-interference.’

“ASEAN needs to adapt or risk becoming irrelevant in a rapidly evolving global environment. The non-interference principle is a barrier to the realization of human rights, as well as to ASEAN’s ability to act decisively to address a host of other issues. It must change if the bloc is to have any hope of becoming a pivotal actor in the international arena,” said APHR Chairperson Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament.

“ASEAN’s 50th anniversary is a time for leaders and policymakers to look in the mirror and make a serious attempt to transform into a regional association that can solve real problems and address the needs of all people within its borders. ASEAN governments must embrace the universality of human rights and quit hiding behind so-called ‘Asian values’ as an excuse to avoid addressing difficult questions.”

Fifty years after the signing of the Bangkok Declaration, which established ASEAN, on 8 August 1967, the region faces a growing number of human rights challenges, from widespread erosion of democracy and rights protections, to escalating ethnic and religious discrimination in a number of states, to a failure to safeguard the rights of millions of migrants throughout the region. At the same time, regional leaders appear more willing than ever to sideline discussion of human rights, APHR said.

“We must push back against moves of autocrats and populist leaders to demonize human rights advocates and trivialize human rights issues,” said APHR Board Member Teddy Baguilat, a member of the House of Representatives of the Philippines.

“Leaders eager to cast aside human rights concerns as they pursue other priorities, like economic integration and combatting terrorism, are gaining strength from the poor examples they’re setting for one another. As chair of ASEAN as its turn 50, the Philippines is setting a particularly poor example for the rest of the region, belittling the role of human rights bodies in monitoring and shaping the country’s policies.”

Parliamentarians highlighted weaknesses in ASEAN’s existing human rights architecture, which undermine regional responses to serious, transboundary rights abuses. The present ASEAN mechanisms tasked with human rights promotion and protection, most notably the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), have failed to live up to their potential and require an overhaul, APHR said.

“AICHR needs a stronger mandate, including the authority to take up and investigate cases of alleged human rights abuses. It also must be able to act independently, without government interference. Without these changes, the Commission will remain toothless and unable to fulfill its stated goal of protecting and promoting human rights,” said APHR Board Member Eva Kusuma Sundari, a member of the Indonesian House of Representatives.

AICHR’s existing terms of reference, formally approved in 2009, fail to include a mandate for the substantive investigation of human rights complaints, and AICHR’s institutional interaction with civil society has been limited. Meanwhile, the selection of AICHR country representatives is at the sole discretion of member governments, who in many cases provide little to no public consultation or information on their decisions.

“The ASEAN Charter and other core documents include guarantees to uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms. And yet, we see member states violate these commitments with impunity all the time. ASEAN governments must do more to live up to their promises and close the wide gap between rhetoric and reality,” Sundari added.

Parliamentarians urged regional leaders to use the opportunity of ASEAN’s 50th anniversary to reform and improve the association.

“Leaders should seize upon this milestone to redouble their efforts to promote real change. ASEAN consistently emphasizes its ‘people-centered’ nature, but existing mechanisms and commitments are devoid of popular buy-in and require fundamental restructuring if they are to succeed at their stated aims,” said Mu Sochua, an APHR Board Member and Cambodian MP.

“If the majority of people are unable to enjoy the benefits brought by peace and economic growth, then our work is not done. In order to fully realize ASEAN’s potential, we must ensure that the rights of all people – including women, ethnic and religious minorities, and other marginalized groups – are respected and protected, and that ASEAN mechanisms are strengthened to ensure that impunity is not the order of the day,” she added.