ASEAN and Human Rights
Prospects for a regional human rights mechanism in Southeast Asia

» by Heu Yee Leung

The end of the Second World War brought a normative shift in international relations as new emphasis was placed on the issue of human rights. In response, the European, American and eventually African human rights regimes were established under the European (1960) and American (1968) conventions and the African Charter (1981) respectively. Notably half a century on, a substantial part of the globe remains untouched by this trend, namely the region of Asia and the Pacific.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is one institution from which a Southeast Asian human rights mechanism could realistically be expected to emerge. It is not only one of the most widely recognized forums for cooperation within the region but, since its inception in 1967, the association has shown the ability to expand in terms of membership as well as areas of activity. More recently, it has been proposed that events of the late 1990s could prove to be important catalysts for further change, with the financial crisis and smoke haze disaster signaling a new role for ASEAN. However, while the association has evolved considerably, the effect and substance of these changes remains questionable. As international pressure for the adaptation of domestic policies to give greater attention to human rights mounts , it will be interesting to see how ASEAN, as possibly the single most important institution of Southeast Asia, will respond. Moreover as the region becomes more open, both internally through democratization and externally through greater involvement in the global economy, the way in which member states confront calls for greater respect for human rights will come into focus.

This essay investigates the prospects of building a Southeast Asian human rights mechanism, specifically through ASEAN. It will begin by looking at the history and tradition of human rights in the region. Then it will discuss the origins and development of regionalism in Southeast Asia, highlighting the successes and failures of ASEAN as well as how it differs from other regional arrangements. Finally, this paper will draw attention to the implications of these features on the possibility of establishing an ASEAN based mechanism for the promotion and protection of human rights, arguing that while such a project is not impossible it is unlikely to be realised in the near future. Furthermore, it is far from obvious to what extent such expansion would be desirable both for the stability of the association as well as the achievement of human rights objectives.

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