With the Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting taking place today, human rights consultant Wathshlah Naidu gives her thoughts on the region’s social issues and the adequacy of Asean in addressing them
Interview by David Hutt
As the Asean foreign ministers gather in Malaysia this week for their annual meeting, the region’s largest civil society forum has released a collective statement highlighting concerns over human rights abuses, poverty and organisational problems.
The statement, entitled Reclaiming the Asean Community for the People, was authored by the Asean Peoples’ Forum, an annual conference that attracts thousands of civil society members from across the region.
“We hope that through this statement, the voices of all people will be heard by Asean leaders. Asean policies must benefit its most marginalised communities, not work against them,” said Wathshlah Naidu, a leading member of the Women’s Aid Organisation in Malaysia, who led the drafting process of the statement.
Can you summarise the statement for us – what are its intentions and what do you hope will come from it?
Releasing an outcome statement at each Asean Civil Society Conference/Asean People’s Forum (ACSC/APF) has been the norm for the past nine years of engagement. Nonetheless, it is evident that countries in the region have not paid much attention to the recommendations in past statements. By the time the statement is usually handed over to the Asean leaders most of the decisions have already been made and thus civil society’s input is not taken into consideration. It’s been more of a symbolic handover rather than a genuine attempt at constructive dialogue.
This year the entire process of ACSC/APF is premised on constructive and substantive engagement with Asean and its different processes and mechanisms. That is the main reason why the statement has been released in time for the Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Kota Kinabalu, which is taking place today.
It’s rather disappointing that the foreign ministers have denied our request for a meeting to hand over the statement directly to them in Kota Kinabalu. This again symbolises the lack of genuine commitment of Asean to engage with civil society constructively despite its rhetoric of “one vision, one identity, one community”.
The priority issues identified in the statement are derived from and need to be read within the current political-economic environment and dynamics of Asean and its member states. The issues include: development of judicial and democratic processes; governance and fundamental rights and freedoms; peace and security; and discrimination and inequality.
The statement identifies how Asean’s principles and economic priorities will continue to exacerbate human rights violations unless it takes steps to rectify the situation.
In your opinion, is there any progress in Southeast Asia in improving human rights and living conditions for marginalised communities?
We cannot deny that there have been measures put in place to address specific conditions of vulnerable and marginalised communities. The [Asean] Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint does include specific measures targeted at women, youth, children, persons with disabilities, migrant workers, indigenous people and the elderly. However, despite claiming to reduce poverty and socio-economic disparities in the region, the Asean Economic Community (AEC) adopts a homogenous approach. There is blanket silence on how the policies and measures would specifically be targeted at the different marginalised communities.
While there may be on paper certain laws or policies, this does not always translate to opportunities that would result in real change. For example, there may be a policy on increasing ICT literacy for women. However, given the growing incidences of censorship, measures such as blocking and filtering internet content have the effect of disproportionately restricting women’s right to information and freedom of expression. Further, there is no concerted effort to include women in the drafting of policies related to ICT governance.
The statement reads: “Women’s human rights are fundamentally threatened by regressive policies and programmes that instrumentalise and exploit women in the name of development.” What exactly is meant by this?
In a nutshell, the current model of economic development – which focuses on efforts to deregulate, privatise and remove trade restrictions – may have increased trade in the region, but it has done little to reduce poverty and violations against women’s human rights.
While there is a strong move to increase women’s participation in the workforce, there is no clear laws or policies to guarantee their labour rights and social protection.
There is also clear inter-relatedness between development and the vulnerabilities of different groups of women. For example, rural, indigenous and urban poor women face decreasing access to essential public services – often due to privatisation of government utilities – which results in women taking up unpaid care work, which decreases the time they have to participate in decision making processes in their communities, which then cements their marginalisation.
Asean has received criticism for not interfering in national sovereignty due to the so-called ‘Asean way’. Do you think that, as an organisation, Asean should be more interventionist?
The reality is that Asean was formed at a time when Southeast Asia was in a rather unsettled situation with many states undergoing internal as well as inter-state conflicts. What it sought to do was to establish a mechanism to foster mutual trust and support amongst the original five member states.
In aspiring to be a rule-based organisation it cannot hide behind its non-intervention principle. Furthermore, there are clear inconsistencies in the way Asean has applied this principle. The hypocrisy is evident in the way Asean has intervened in internal matters of the member states when it suits them. For example, in the Cambodian crisis in 1970s, in legitimising Indonesia’s move in annexing East Timor and when several member states were very vocal when Indonesian forest fires created widespread atmospheric pollution. Glaringly evident is the fact there is clear intervention of capitalist elites influencing national economic policies and measures of Asean member states.
It is only in areas of human rights violations and exploitation of social conditions that Asean member states invoke their so-called adherence to the non-intervention principle. Despite the adoption of various Asean charters and declarations, it continues to lose credibility in not addressing violations such as enforced disappearances of human rights defenders, intra-state ethnic and religious violence, persecution, torture, environmental degradation and many more. It has become a political tool that is used to undermine its obligations towards elimination of discrimination and human rights violations and has resulted in member states acting with impunity.
To answer your question, yes, Asean should definitely intervene in human rights violations in the region. We’re not calling for Asean member states to implement unlawful use of force or other coercive means, but there are ways that Asean can intervene in grave forms of human rights violations, such as trade embargos, cessation of economic aid and others. Adherence to a non-interference principle does not mean silence.