As ASEAN Summit begins, MPs call on leaders to tackle region’s most pressing challenges

April 26th, 2017  •  Author:   ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights  •  5 minute read

MANILA, 26 April 2017 — Heads of state and government attending the 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila this week should tackle critical regional challenges head-on and not shy away from difficult questions, including those related to the state of human rights and democracy, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said today.

The collective of regional lawmakers called on ASEAN leaders to face up to the growing human rights crisis in Southeast Asia and take steps to strengthen regional mechanisms to address it. APHR warned that a failure to do so could threaten the sustainability and long-term success of the regional organization, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

“The accelerating erosion of democracy and human rights protections threatens to undermine the progress of ASEAN integration and yield a weaker regional bloc that fails to live up to its people-centered claim,” said APHR Chairperson Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament.

“We’re seeing several troubling trends region-wide: civil society and opposition voices, including parliamentarians, are being harassed and imprisoned; marginalized communities are under attack from security forces; and religious extremism is increasingly being used for nefarious political aims. The ASEAN Summit is a place where these issues can and should be discussed, debated, and ultimately responded to at the regional level.”

The 30th ASEAN Summit, which begins today and continues through Saturday, is the first of two annual meetings of ASEAN leaders in 2017. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is hosting the meeting in his capacity as ASEAN Chair. One of the six priorities identified for ASEAN in 2017 under the year’s theme of “Partnering for Change, Engaging the World” focuses on a “people-oriented and people-centered” ASEAN.

Parliamentarians urged ASEAN leaders to heed the voices and concerns of civil society groups, including through the creation of enabling environments for civil society and by ensuring meaningful consultation with NGOs and grassroots people’s organizations in the context of regional and national policymaking.

“As elected representatives of the people, we urge heads of government – on behalf of our constituents – to incorporate stronger consultative mechanisms at the regional level that engage all voices, including women and youth, and allow space for civil society to operate in all ASEAN countries without government interference,” said APHR Vice-Chair Mu Sochua, a member of the Cambodian National Assembly.

Lawmakers expressed concerns about a number of regional developments, including increasing government restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly; threats to civil society; and rampant extra-judicial killings, most prominently in the context of the brutal drug war being waged in the Philippines. They also raised alarm over possible atrocity crimes in the region, particularly in Myanmar, where the United Nations recently warned that crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing may have occurred.

“Governments have a responsibility to protect all ASEAN people, particularly the most vulnerable. To do so, they should ensure that national and regional mechanisms responsible for the protection of human rights are free from government interference and have the mandate to investigate human rights violations independently. The judiciary should also be independent and have the trust of the people,” Mu Sochua said.

APHR called for the regional grouping to strengthen the mandate of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) to be able to respond effectively to human rights violations. They also urged leaders to take a closer look at the bloc’s “non-interference” principle, which they argued constitutes a barrier to human rights protections recognized under international law.

“The idea of ‘non-interference’ serves as convenient cover for some governments when it comes to issues they don’t want to address. The fact is, however, that interference does take place in the economic realm without objection, so leaders must acknowledge the need to discuss whether the policy is really fit to take the grouping forward. It should be tabled for discussion at least,” Charles Santiago said.

“The goal of addressing the non-interference policy would not be to undermine national sovereignty, but to ensure that basic standards exist for member states and to strengthen existing systems for the economic and social benefit of all,” he added.

APHR called on regional leaders to take steps toward the promotion and protection of economic, social, and cultural rights, particularly within the framework of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), which constitutes the main driver of ASEAN’s ongoing regional integration effort. These rights are critical to achieving successful, broad-based development, parliamentarians argued.

“ASEAN leaders have an opportunity to make significant progress toward positive development outcomes. But to do so, leaders must address growing political and economic inequality, including gender disparities, in order to ensure that ASEAN really works for all the region’s people,” said APHR Vice-Chair Eva Sundari, a member of the Indonesian House of Representatives.

MPs noted concerns about the human rights implications of proposed trade deals, such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and various bilateral free trade agreements, as well as the social, environmental, and human rights impacts of large-scale development projects, which often have disproportionate impacts on women and marginalized communities. They also raised concerns about the rights and safety of migrant workers, particularly as the intra-regional movement of people and goods expands under the AEC.

“ASEAN needs to be a regional community that stands on the side of the people, not one that only sticks up for big business and the well-connected. The 30th ASEAN Summit provides a chance for ASEAN leaders to make clear where they stand,” Sundari added.