The ASEAN Way, the EU, and Human Rights Governance

The EU’s role in setting a standard for human rights, and acting as a source of international pressure when it comes to enforcing these rights, has long been acknowledged. Comparing this aspect of the EU to other instances of regional governance in human rights reveals the dynamism and flexibility of regional forms of government, writes Charlotte James.

October 16, 2014 – Articles – Tagged: ASEAN, EU, Human Rights

Regionalism, a multi-national expression of shared identity and goals combined with institutions intended to shape cooperative action, is seen by many as a fresh turn in the history of political association. Movements towards regionalism, such as the creation of the European Community or the establishment of ASEAN, have gathered speed since the middle of the twentieth century. It may even come to be seen as a primary form of government, altering the way in which nation-states relate to one another and changing the nature of state-sovereignty.

The European Union is by far the most advanced institution of integrated regionalism in the world today. Its common parliament and multiple presidents are testament to the EU’s commitment to explore regional integration to its full potential. Its values include a declared affinity with the democratic process and transparency (enshrined in the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon), its commitment to equality in freedom of movement and work across its nations, and an eschewing of nationalism. These ideals embody a very ‘western’ form of regionalism.

However, the EU’s interpretation of regional governance is only one of many and should not be used as a basis for judging or understanding other instances of regionalism. Jürgen Rüland, writing for the Keio University in Tokyo, argues that theories of regional integration are Eurocentric and disregard the structures and values that underlie other regions. Regionalism takes place across the globe in many forms, from political and economic unions, such as the EU, to the establishment of Free Trade Areas, such as the new free trade agreement between Australia, New Zealand, and ASEAN (AANZFTA). The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is itself a regional institution, overseeing ten countries in the Southeast Asian region (Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar). It has a further form under the title ASEAN+3, (APT) which includes China, South Korea, and Japan. ASEAN has a long and distinct history that has shaped common values that are distinct to its own form of regionalism. Analysing a few key moments in ASEAN’s history provides an example of an alternate path to the EU’s western style system of integration.

ASEAN has sometimes been dismissed as nothing more than a ‘talk-shop’. However, there are many ways in which ASEAN is a significant achievement. It is animated by values common to the region, and was founded despite strife between its founding members. ASEAN has passed many resolutions and continues to develop as an institution. After all, the EU too has seen its fair share of criticism, especially with the rise in popularity of Eurosceptic parties.

Vastly different histories and pressures shape the EU and ASEAN. These histories inform different solutions to similar problems. Understanding the contexts in which regional governance emerged across the globe is vital to assessing the relative success or failure of different approaches to regionalism in a variety of contexts. Extending the field of reference and studying regionalism as a global phenomenon could help to develop a greater range of tactics and strategies for achieving its goals.

One way to achieve this comparison is through comparing their approaches to human rights infringements. It is worth exploring the historical roots to these regional projects in order to deepen our understanding of what the potential of regional governance is.

When the Bangkok Declaration was signed in 1967, bringing ASEAN into existence, its ethos was shaped by the post-colonial stress on independence strongly felt in ASEAN’s founding countries. Narciso Ramos, the foreign minister of the Philippines, bemoaned that the infighting of the South-east Asian states could only lead to a ‘self-perpetuating dependence on the advanced, industrial nations.’ Protecting the independence of states from outside forces was a founding principle of ASEAN, which championed a ‘spirit of equality and partnership,’ and ‘national independence’ in its Bangkok Declaration. Its treaties and declarations repeatedly stress the value of autonomy. The important 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) explicitly established a sense of autonomy amongst its signatories. The TAC stressed the right to national existence free from external interference, and particularly stated that no signatory should interfere with the internal affairs of any others.

The value of autonomy in the EU does not begin to approach this level of centrality to its founding philosophy. The EU favours a more supranational approach to regionalism, reflected in its drive towards monetary union. This is perhaps due to the EU’s role in witnessing the ways in which nationalism can destroy cooperation and lead to war. The EU’s federal style of government raises important questions over the extent to which it should be able to control the internal affairs of states. Inconsistency between member states causes problems for the EU. For instance, the disparity in attitudes towards economic and financial governance between Greece and Germany, who must nonetheless coexist in monetary union, has complicated recovery from the global financial crisis in 2008. The question of how different regional institutions act as arbitrators between states and international actors can be explored in the EU and ASEAN’s differing policies toward forced migration and human rights abuses in Myanmar.

ASEAN’s emphasis on autonomy complicates its ability to deal with the transgressions of Myanmar, admitted into ASEAN in 1997. It sought to engage with Myanmar within a framework of constructive cooperation. This strategy is antithetical to the EU’s sanctions regime, which would have cut Myanmar out of international trade and affairs until it was forced to comply with international standards. There were calls from the west to suspend Myanmar’s ASEAN membership. This strategy would merely have driven Myanmar towards its other neighbours, such as China, who were less concerned with its human rights record.

The EU has often set a gold standard in terms of the treatment of human rights in the international community. However, its policies have not produced any significant progress in Myanmar, because of limited international cooperation and a lack of will to meet word with deed. Equally, ASEAN’s commitment to resisting external pressure and non-interference in the affairs of member states compromised its ability to deal with Myanmar. ASEAN’s international standing was damaged by its perceived lack of action in Myanmar. One analyst argued that the political pressure that led Myanmar to begin to comply with international standards, by compelling it to join ASEAN in 1997, was now meaningless, as ASEAN acts as a cover against external political pressure.

ASEAN worked to build a relationship with the leaders of Myanmar, and was able to exploit its close contacts in order to allow the UNHCR access to key populations, such as the Rohingya people. ASEAN’s work became more able to promote cooperation and understanding between Myanmar and the international community after Cyclone Nargis in 2008. By acting as a negotiator between Myanmar and international institutions, ASEAN did much to socialise Myanmar and open it to international aid.

However, ASEAN’s involvement has faced important limitations. This is particularly due to the fact that it seeks to provide a remedy to the suffering within Myanmar, rather than a solution to its causes. Its cooperation with the military junta has done little to empower Myanmar’s people to determine their own fate. It has made its ability to deliver aid dependent upon several factors that could change at any moment. ASEAN’s involvement in Myanmar is contingent upon personal and informal relationships with military decision-makers, and the aid it facilitates is dependent on the continuing generosity of international donor-nations. These limitations point to the failure of ASEAN’s strategies to produce a systemic change in Myanmar. However, it proved much more effective in opening up the country to international aid, and was more able to manage the country’s symptoms, if not cure the disease.

The EU and ASEAN have been led down different paths of response to international situations as if by instinct. This speaks to the important role of common histories in shaping shared values and protocols for action across regions. ASEAN’s high regard for its autonomy, and the independence of its member states contrasts with the EU’s expectation that exerting political and international pressure will result in change.

Comparing the ways in which regional bodies act internationally is just as important as understanding their internal functions. This is especially the case today, as the neighbours of both ASEAN and the EU, China and Russia respectively, have caused unrest in disputed and nearby territory. The challenges of regional government across the world offer a rich and complex image of how we might continue into the future. If regionalism is to be a viable option, fundamental values must be revised so that they can be understood in a new light. The enforcement of global justice and human rights, the operation of democracy, and state sovereignty must be reconceptualised to fit with the regional paradigm. By viewing the attitudes and approaches of different regions to these concepts, we allow the world to become an experiment chamber, where the effects of different policies can be evaluated for their worth and effectiveness. Regionalism is not just potentially the next ‘stage in government’ from the nation-state. It is, much more importantly, a chance to innovate the way we relate to the world.