The human rights side of EU-ASEAN relations

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, most commonly known by its acronym ASEAN, is widely described as an economic union of 10 Southeast Asian countries. But it’s not only economic.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, most commonly known by its acronym ASEAN, is widely described as an economic union of 10 Southeast Asian countries. But it’s not only economic.

According to Rafendi Djamin, the country’s representative to the ASEAN, intergovernmental commission on human rights, there are a number of human rights elements.

“Initially, ASEAN was established in 1967 to maintain peace and stability in the region and to ensure there is no war among the countries of this sub-region,” said Djamin. “And I think it has been a success for ASEAN. In the beginning, ASEAN was made up of only five countries. After the Vietnam War and in the 1980s, it grew to 10 countries.” 

In fact, there was a change in Indonesia in 2000 – starting with the fall of President Suharto in 1998 and the rise of democracy. What is more, it was Indonesia who proposed to extend ASEAN into a political and security committee. Later, it was the Philippines that tabled an idea to create a new community – one that cares and shares the social problems.

This is why ASEAN decided to transform from an association without any legally-binding basis into a group of countries that are united under a charter that outlines the principles of rule of law, good governance and respect of fundamental rights. This forms a legally-binding commitment of ASEAN. All 10 members of ASEAN ratified the chapter back in 2008.

New Europe: As regards human rights, which can include basic human rights, like the right to life and free speech, as well as the right of social minorities, the situation in each ASEAN country is different. Do you think there is a possibility for ASEAN to become a union that is centrally ruled? Also, that rules over its member states or decision to its member states or to have common norms for each country?

Rafendi Djamin:  Since 2012, from the moment that the charter was ratified, we have a legally binding commitment of the 10 member states on the rule of law, good governance and for the respect of fundamental rights.

After this, a commission of human rights was created. And this commission drafted the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration that covers the rights that you mentioned, from the civil political rights up to the economic and social rights, and where the rights of marginalised groups are also covered. The declaration is a political commitment. It is not legally binding. There is a political commitment with this framework that we agreed on and there is political commitment from the 10 states that the norms in the declaration will have to be translated to the national level. Otherwise, what’s the point of having a declaration if you’re not doing anything about it?

So, does this mean that Brunei is creating a rather unacceptable situation for ASEAN?

In the case of Brunei, it has to have a discussion because sometime, someway, during their development of the nation they will apply Sharia law. Now the Sharia law will have to be cross-checked with what has been agreed by the state – the same state that has signed ASEAN Human Rights Declaration.

There is also the process of democratisation in Myanmar, as well as the persecution of trade unionists in Cambodia. Did you discuss the human rights situation in ASEAN countries with EU officials in Brussels?

The European Union is closely following the work of ASEAN in the context of human rights. There is even an agreement between the EU and ASEAN in different sectors of cooperation. Last year, we agreed to implement the EU-ASEAN human rights cooperation. This means that ASEAN’s context of cooperation is based on sharing and not on investing money or contributing funds.