Regional Protection of Human Rights in Southeast Asia

In Southeast Asia, the monetary crisis of 1997 overturned the traditional disinclination to engage with human rights. Aside from Brunei, Malaysia, Myanmar and Singapore, the other six members of Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) are parties to both International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Moreover, international human rights norms have also been integrated in national constitutions of several countries in the region. The Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand of 2007 guarantees the rights, freedoms and equality of the people. Human rights have also established a prominent status in the domestic legal order of the Philippines, as one of the first countries that ratified both Covenants. In 2004, the Indonesian Constitution was amended to include changes pertaining to human rights protection.

Despite the integration of human rights norms in national constitutions, why do the state members of ASEAN remain reluctant to pursue stronger agenda in realising human rights protection at the regional level? It is true that in the last decade ASEAN has made substantial steps towards adopting human rights. Human rights are now embedded in the aims of ASEAN as provided in the ASEAN Charter. Member states created the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) in 2009 that was charged with promoting human rights, and in 2012 ASEAN released the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD) which for the first time details what ASEAN means when it uses the words “human rights”. However, these developments have received mixed reviews. Scholarly discussions on this topic have offered mostly criticisms on the role of AICHR and on the potential of AHRD in promoting and protecting human rights of the citizens of Southeast Asian countries.

The research aims to investigate one aspect of ASEAN human rights protection – the (dis)connections between national and regional laws on human rights. It analyses, firstly, how national constitutions and national human rights laws accept, reject and adapt international human rights norms, and secondly, how the (current) regional human rights principles, guidelines, and discourses accept, reject and adapt national human rights laws. Factors to be explored are the confluences, constraints and contradictions regarding human rights that exist in the national constitutions of three big countries Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, and of three small countries Cambodia, Burma and East Timor. These are assessed in order to find out whether the ways in which human rights are asserted in national constitutions and/or practiced contribute to the persistent deadlock at the regional level.