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Phil Robertson: ‘ASEAN remains a toothless tiger when it comes to human rights’


As Burma prepares to host the next ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights meeting in June, DVB sits down with Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch to discuss the regional bloc’s record on addressing human rights abuses that occur within member states.

Historically, how interested have ASEAN member states been in what countries within the group are doing domestically concerning human rights?

Well, historically they haven’t viewed them. Historically, they’ve silenced them. ASEAN has continually had a principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of its member states, and so that has meant that ASEAN, as a secretariat, and various different members states have not raised or engaged on human rights abuses in other member states.

It’s almost like a dictator’s ceasefire agreement, where for instance: Thailand doesn’t speak badly about Vietnam and Vietnam doesn’t speak badly about Indonesia and Indonesia doesn’t speak badly about Cambodia. Everybody gets to do whatever they want.

ASEAN talks in very broad principles, but they don’t go down to the national level in any of the countries to raise human rights issues.

How detrimental has this been to developing any type of consensus to combat human rights issues within ASEAN?

It’s been very detrimental because you have an effective veto – if one country objects then nothing goes forward. And that’s what we’re seeing in the case of the ASEAN Declaration on Human Rights and the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR). They operate by consensus. So one country, say like Vietnam, Laos, or Burma, is opposed to raising a particular issue then that issue will be taken off the table.

So, it hardly works at all. It has essentially prevented common action on human rights because there’s almost a lowest common denominator dynamic going on there.

In a recent article published in The Nation you say AICHR’s key mandate is to draft a declaration on human rights. How is AICHR handling that responsibility at the moment and what do they need to do to legitimise the process?

They’re handling it very poorly; so far everything they’ve done has been done in secret. The issues concerning the terms of reference for the drafting of the ASEAN declaration, who are actually going to be the drafters and the actual draft itself has all been withheld despite repeated requests from international communities and ASEAN civil society groups to receive this information.

What has come out has been leaked or in other roundabout ways. It raises several key concerns that ASEAN may be engaged in a project to undermine international human rights standards. The declaration on human rights is one of the premiere responsibilities of AICHR. It’s one of the things they were setup to do. ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan has stated that this will guide the work of ASEAN on human rights for years to come, but they’re drafting it in a closed room. They’re drafting it in a way that no one outside of that room is having the opportunity to contribute ideas. Without popular consultation and without engaging ASEAN civil society communities, it’s going to be a draft that lacks legitimacy.

Burma hosts the next AICHR meeting in Rangoon in June. Does this represent any type of progress concerning the country’s commitment to combating human rights abuses?

AICHR’s activities so far really haven’t contributed appreciably to improving human rights progress in the region. So, I’m not sure how holding an AICHR meeting in Burma is necessarily going to affect the dynamic one way or the other. It just means that it’s Burma’s turn to host the meeting.

They key thing is that the AICHR representative from Burma was not popularly selected. This person is a government appointee. According to the terms of reference of AICHR, the person can be removed at any time for any reason by the government, so there’s no independence for that person.

The other representatives from other states in AICHR are serving at the beck and call of governments and are doing the governments’ dirty work. In cases, for instance like Vietnam or Laos, we understand from persons we’ve spoken to that these countries are among the most obstructionist and the biggest countries causing problems at AICHR. It appears that perhaps these people were put there precisely to make sure that AICHR is not able to do anything.

ASEAN remains a toothless tiger when it comes to human rights. They have a nicely named commission, but the commission doesn’t do anything.

Is there any other method — outside of imposing sanctions — that may push Burma and ASEAN to further protect human rights and combat abuses in the region?

I think the international community and the governments that are serving as dialogue partners to ASEAN have to raise very serious concerns that ASEAN is not honouring its commitments in the ASEAN Charter to respect human rights. Ultimately, this has got to come up in governmental process where governments in ASEAN agree to what they signed for and that the charter actually means something and its not the old ASEAN where you can sign a statement then walk out of the meeting room and ignore what you’ve just signed.

According to reports we’ve heard from journalists in Rangoon, a lot of businesspersons and investors are upset that some countries, in particular the US, are holding Burma to an unfair standard with regards to sanctions as they trade with countries in ASEAN that are known to violate their citizens’ human rights — such as Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos. How would you respond to that statement?

Vietnam is a very bad human rights abuser as is Laos and other countries in the region as well. There are no saints in this grouping when it comes to human rights. With that said, Burma has been amongst the worst human rights abusers in Southeast Asia for decades. The recent optimism surrounding progress in Burma really conveniently forgets that there are still hundreds of political prisoners in Burmese prisons; the repressive laws that were used by the military for years are still all on the books – restricting freedom of association, freedom of assembly and freedom to associate and form organisations; and there has been no significant change in the way the Burmese military operates in ethnic minority areas.

If you ask the Kachin has there been any significant change in today’s Burma, the answer would be no. I would say the sanctions issue is one that the international community is moving forward on with undue haste. I think they’re optimistic to the point that they’re ignoring basic realties and their own policies points of one year ago. Whether there is some sort of disconnect between what has been done by the international community with sanctions on Burma versus what has taken place in Vietnam is an area for open debate.

Vietnam in the past has also been found to systematically abuse religious freedom by the US government and they were penalised for that. They were listed for those actions. The fact that there are sanctions on a government is not the only indicator of human rights abuse. There are very significant human rights abuses that are taking place in governments that have not been sanctioned and the international community should step up and place pressure on those governments to respect human rights across the board.

-Phil Roberston is a deputy director for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division


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