ASEAN's Human Rights Agenda: Modest Beginning, Reasonable Prospects - and How the West Can Help
Until very recently, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been resistant to any idea that regional cooperation should include an agenda to promote and protect human rights. For more than three decades, ASEAN governments maintained that each member state was free to pursue its own human rights policy, without any interference from outside. That position came to an end only in 2003 after Indonesia — which began its transition to democracy in 1998 — proposed that ASEAN should cooperate to promote and protect human rights. ASEAN, for the first time, agreed to include a human rights agenda in its official area of cooperation.
In November 2007, a more significant step was taken when ASEAN adopted the ASEAN Charter, which obliges its members “to strengthen democracy, enhance good governance and the rule of law, and to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms…” In line with this objective, the ASEAN Charter stipulates that “ASEAN shall establish an ASEAN human rights body,” which, at the ASEAN Summit in October 2009, finally gave birth to the establishment of the ASEAN Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR).
This brief paper discusses three main questions. First, how did that change of attitude come about? Second, does such a change suggest a greater adoption of liberal values by ASEAN so that a closer convergence with its Western partners becomes more likely? Third, what can ASEAN’s partners in the West do in order to assist the Association to implement its commitment to better promote and protect human rights?