Balancing old norms and the new — Joel Ng
JULY 13 — The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is preparing to release elements of a landmark declaration on human rights being discussed this week in Phnom Penh. It has been quite a journey.
ASEAN was founded as a security-oriented organisation, concerned with inter-state conflict and strengthening the newly independent states outwardly.
It, thus, entrenched sovereignty and non-interference as basic commitments in agreements such as the Treaty of Amity and Co-operation. This has led to the “lowest common denominator” approach, where agreements are made only at the level comfortable to all states.
The proposed ASEAN Human Rights Declaration — which is expected to be adopted at the 21st ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh in November — would take the 10-member grouping further. As human rights are fundamentally concerned with mediating relations between a state and its populace, a regional instrument such as the Declaration would be in tension with the norms of non-interference and sovereignty.
Several ASEAN states are not yet ready to commit to a legal framework of human rights protection. If the Declaration includes qualifiers that derogate human rights under unspecific conditions, it may go below international standards such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1993 Vienna Declaration.
The ASEAN Declaration also cannot both be the lowest common denominator of existing protections (where some states lack explicit protection of human rights in their laws), as well as a framework for future co-operation on human rights, as stipulated in the terms of reference of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.
These issues were present in 1993 when the Vienna Declaration was signed and it resulted in a concurrent Bangkok Declaration that enunciated an Asian position and introduced the derogation of rights under certain security considerations.
What has not been as evident in Asian discourse since is the link between human rights and security. Human security expanded the concept of traditional notions of security (usually revolving around the state or regime) to focus on wider definitions such as economic, health, food and political security.
In this framework, human rights contribute to the political security and, by doing so, reduce potential antagonism between the state and disparate groups.
Recognising ASEAN’s original security-oriented posture, civil society organisations (CSOs) — which have expressed concerns that the final Declaration could provide loopholes or escape clauses for human rights violations — would do well to demonstrate clearly how the human rights protections they are calling for will contribute to regional security.
What may be self-evident to CSOs must be communicated to policy-makers effectively so that there is no perceived conflict between specific rights and national security. The members of ASEAN that have emerged from authoritarian regimes know this best and can offer useful lessons on how to manage these issues.
ASEAN, too, should recognise that, even as its success in preventing inter-state conflict has demonstrated the success of the organisation, the continuation of long-running internal conflicts has exemplified the limits of its effectiveness.
Local political forces can exacerbate ongoing tensions, as witnessed in Rakhine state in Myanmar recently. While protecting national security is a legitimate concern of all states, the wording in the Declaration must not be arbitrary and open to discursive capture by small groups of local elites.
Notwithstanding these differences, the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration will be an important step forward for the region. National plans of action will be expected, and regional and sectoral frameworks for human rights co-operation will be accelerated.
Regionally, the more democratic states must balance between the demands of civil society and the risk of rejection by the less liberal regimes. ASEAN, too, is balancing between old norms and new commitments to a people-centred community.
While the final Declaration may not ultimately please everyone, it will mark the beginning of a framework for future co-operation in human security. — Today
* Joel Ng is an associate research fellow at the Centre for Multilateralism Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.