Human rights between Europe and Southeast Asia

02 Aug 2006 - 13:49
'Human rights' are a source of friction in relations between Southeast Asian and European governments. Southeast Asian representatives generally emphasize principles of sovereignty and non-interference in internal matters, while their European counterparts tend to champion democracy, human rights and good governance beyond their borders. The difference in approach, however, does not seem as daunting today as it once did: human rights are now firmly on the ASEAN agenda, and respecting its way of pursuing politics will lead to a more sustainable and effective result than lecturing from former colonial powers.Relations between Europe and East Asia have been institutionalised since 1996 in the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), a forum for dialogue between heads of state established by the then 15 member states of the European Union, the seven member states of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), China, Japan and the Republic of Korea. ASEM is informal, without official institutions or a secretariat; its main aim is to build trust among its members and to create a framework for future cooperation.

The first ASEM summit in 1996 addressed general aspirations, trade and investment; it was considered a success as it avoided controversial issues. The strategy of avoiding thorny issues was more difficult to maintain at the second summit in 1998 - ASEAN had expanded the previous year and now included Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar; human rights violations by Myanmar's military government became a particular source of friction between the European and Asian sides. EU member states, consistent with their policy of an arms embargo and economic sanctions against Myanmar, were unwilling to accept it as a participant. In contrast, most Asian states considered Myanmar's political instability and human rights record an internal matter that should not interfere with its participation in multilateral meetings or its membership of ASEAN: silent diplomacy and 'constructive engagement' were the way forward. This difference in approach almost derailed the ASEM project: meetings between senior officials and ministers were cancelled, and the summit only went ahead at the last moment due to Thai mediation.

Only seven of the ten ASEAN countries attended the second, third and fourth summits in 1998, 2000 and 2002. Myanmar's participation became an issue again before the fifth ASEM summit in 2004 as the ten new states of the enlarged European Union were automatically accepted to attend ASEM meetings and summits. A compromise was reached where Myanmar could attend, but not at the presidential level. This solution, considered far from ideal by many, is again causing trouble in the run up to the sixth summit in Helsinki this November.

EU, ASEAN and the 'Asian way'

The controversy over Myanmar's participation within ASEM points to deeper differences in opinion regarding state sovereignty, regional cooperation and the realization of national society between - generally speaking - ASEM's European and Asian member states. The historical context is crucial. The European states, after a 20th century of unprecedented carnage and human rights abuses, have transferred some of their law-making powers to a supranational organization that legislates on human rights standards. ASEAN, in contrast, was set up in 1967 by states varying enormously in politics, economy and culture. What they shared was their recently won post-colonial status and the priority of nation-building. ASEAN, far from being an ambitious project for regional cooperation, was a cautious attempt to maintain friendly relations between states. The association was based on the non-binding Bangkok Declaration, where the principle of non-interference in internal matters, or state sovereignty, was considered the cornerstone for cooperation.

The principle of sovereignty and human rights are both responses to the unequal division of power in (international) society.1 The principle of sovereignty protects small or weak states from larger ones while the doctrine of human rights protects individuals and vulnerable groups from the unbounded execution of state power.

Southeast Asian states' greater emphasis on national sovereignty is reflected in their approach to conceptualising and implementing human rights. The focus has been on protection by the states themselves, according to their own 'cultural' norms. Critics of this approach have accused certain Southeast Asian leaders of misusing the argument of cultural differences and sovereignty to hide rights-violating behaviour. Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, a prominent advocate of 'Asian values', proclaimed that human rights privileged 'Western values' - most notably individual freedom - and was not suitable for Asia where community, order and harmony were more important. Individual rights should thus be sacrificed to serve wider community interests and national economic development.2 Such statements, and the fact that until two years ago only five out of ten ASEAN member states had ratified both Covenants on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), led observers to doubt the seriousness of Southeast Asian governments' commitment to human rights in any form.

While the argument of 'Asian values' has been misused by political leaders to serve political interests, it remains plausible that Asian governments have different priorities from western ones - on individual versus community rights, and civil versus social rights. This is born out by the ratification pattern of human rights treaties by European and Asian states. The former favour agreements that apply to individuals, based on the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and both Covenants; many Asian states, on the other hand, show a priority of first protecting vulnerable groups such as women and children. All ASEAN member states, with the exception of Brunei Darussalam, are party to the UN Convention for Women (CEDAW) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

Recent developments

Southeast Asia over the past five-six years has witnessed a deepening transition towards democratic practices and respect for citizens' rights. Southeast Asian leaders today are less inclined to invoke cultural relativism when discussing issues around human rights and their implementation. In the wake of the 1997-98 financial crisis, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia (re-)established national human rights commissions which accept complaints, study the concerns of specific groups such as the disabled, children and women, and promote education on human rights. In 2005 and 2006, Indonesia ratified both Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, while Thailand signed the two Protocols of the Rights of the Child.3

Civil society in Southeast Asia is active in the promotion of human rights. The Asian Commission on Human Rights, which drafted the 'Asian Human Rights Charter - a Peoples' Charter' in the 1990s, is one important initiative.4 Forum-Asia, a network of Asian human rights organisations that promotes, protects, educates and monitors all categories of human rights, is another. Also of note is the Asia-Europe Peoples' Forum, which takes place within the ASEM context. This non-state platform for over 400 Asian and European NGOs is campaigning for inclusion in the ASEM Dialogue, where it wants to see discussion of democratisation. The existence of these groups point to a cautious but discernable trend towards more open discussion of state affairs by NGOs, academics and business communities.

The greater institutionalisation of regional cooperation now being pursued will likely further the protection of human rights in Southeast Asia. An 'Eminent Persons Group' of respected personalities is currently drafting recommendations for a legally binding ASEAN Charter.5 The Charter - which will promote democratic institutions, human rights, transparency and good governance6 - has yet to be finalised, but if stated intentions are realized and the document includes articles on human rights protection, it will be a milestone towards the regional human rights treaty that ASEAN member states have been working on for some time.7 An analogy is the inter-American system of human rights protection, where the Charter of the Organisation of American States became the basis for the American Convention on Human Rights of 1969.8

Future challenges

Human rights remain controversial in relations between Europe and Southeast Asia; fundamental differences of opinion remain on implementing 'universal' human rights within specific national contexts. How to deal with human rights violating states such as Myanmar remains a challenge for Southeast Asian governments. Should Myanmar's military government remain included in the system of regional cooperation, or should it be more openly criticised? Although ASEAN states still officially maintain that the situation in Myanmar is an internal matter, under the surface there is growing impatience and more direct criticism; some argue that Myanmar has become a threat to regional stability.

The road ahead will be gradual, and delicate. European partners need to acknowledge recent developments taking place in Southeast Asia, and to encourage them rather than trying to speed things up through criticism and pressure. Europe also needs to realize that its particular practice of democracy cannot be transplanted root and branch to Southeast Asia. The European states are now more homogenous in political stability and economic development than their Southeast Asian counterparts; the large and politically empowered middle class in Europe did not emerge overnight.

Improvement in the protection of human rights in Southeast Asia will result from dynamics within the region itself, which will lead to a more sustainable and effective result than when lectured to by foreign (former colonial) powers. Respect for the Southeast Asian states and their way of dealing with issues is the right thing to do - without trying to control everything, the way we are used to.


  • 1. Tatsuo, I. 1999. 'Liberal Democracy and Asian Orientalism'. Bauer, J.R. and D.A. Bell, eds. The East Asian Challenge for Human Rights. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.33
  • 2. BBC World Service. 18 May 2002. 'Article 30: Repression in the Name of Rights is Unacceptable'.
  • 3. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Status of Ratifications of the Principal International Human Rights Treaties. 10 April 2006.
  • 4. Harris, S.R. 2000. 'Asian Human Rights: Forming a Regional Covenant'. Asian-Pacific Law and Policy Journal 17, p.2.
  • 5. J. Wanadi, J. 18 April 2006. 'The ASEAN Charter: Its Importance and Content'. The Jakarta Post.
  • 6. Kuala Lumpur Declaration on the Establishment of the ASEAN Charter. Kuala Lumpur, 12 December 2005, paragraph 4.
  • 7. A Working Group for ASEAN Human Rights Mechanisms was adopted after the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights. See Conclusions and Recommendations of the Workshop for the Establishment of an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism: Kuala Lumpur, 20-22 June 1997.
  • 8. O'Sullivan, D. 2004. 'The Arab, European, Inter-American and African Perspectives on Understanding Human Rights; the Debate between 'Universalism' and Cultural Relativism'. Mediterranean Journal of Human Rights, 8- 1, pp.176-177.