Southeast Asian representatives take to the global stage at UN General Assembly meeting

By: Sam Bradpiece - Posted on: September 26, 2016 | Current Affairs

Representatives from across Southeast Asia used the 71st meeting of the UN General Assembly to defend and extol their domestic policies to the international community

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the UN headquarters in New York, USA, 30 June 2015.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the UN headquarters in New York, USA, 30 June 2015. Photo: EPA/JASON SZENES

A number of Southeast Asian government representatives used the 71st UN General Assembly meeting, held this past weekend at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, to deflect international criticism of their policies.

The Philippines’ secretary for foreign affairs Perfecto Yasay argued that the ongoing war on drugs in his country had been misunderstood.

“Our actions have grabbed both the national headlines and international attention for all the wrong reasons,” he told the assembly, adding that the country’s drug problem was a hindrance to development and intrinsically tied to a culture of corruption.

“It has torn apart many of our communities, destroyed our families and snuffed out the hopes and dreams of our people – young and old – for a bright future,” he stated.

However, contrary to numerous accusations, he argued that the state had not sanctioned the killing of drug dealers.

“We have not and will never empower our law enforcement agents to shoot-to-kill any individual suspected of drug crimes,” he claimed, before adding that “extrajudicial killings have no place in our society and in our criminal justice system”.

Human rights advocates, from within the UN and elsewhere, have been openly critical of Duterte’s war on drugs, which has claimed more than 3,000 lives.

Yasay also praised improvements made by Duterte’s government to social services in the Philippines.

Also on the defensive was Cambodia’s foreign minister, Prak Sokhonn.

Sokhonn claimed that Cambodia’s ruling CPP had been up against unrealistic expectations of “perfect democracy” ever since the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement.

A leaked report by the UN’s special rapporteur for Cambodia lambasted Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government for its political repression of opposition groups and members of civil society.

Last week, Hun Sen threatened to “eliminate” his opponents should they hold mass demonstrations against a wave of legal cases and arrests of its members and senior leadership.

A recent joint study into electoral systems conducted by Harvard University and the University of Sydney showed Cambodia’s elections to be the least fair in the Asia-Pacific region and in the bottom ten globally – partly because of such intimidation.

Sokhonn, however, claimed that the opposition had brought this repression upon themselves.

“We often find ourselves in a situation in which our opposition is committing very serious crimes,” he said, attempting to justify his government’s position.

The foreign minister also argued that the world’s wealthier countries are responsible for enabling the developing world to reach the UN’s sustainable development goals.

“I wish to emphasise here the responsibility of the rich countries which have the means to turn these goals into reality,” he said.

Delegates from both Malaysia and Indonesia prioritised regional and international security issues.

Malaysia’s representative to the General Assembly, deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, addressed issues facing the Islamic world, including the humanitarian crises in Syria, Palestine and Myanmar.

“Although Malaysia might not be a major player [on the world stage], we can contribute and also be involved in universal human issues,” he said.

The deputy prime minister also called for the world to stand united against terrorism and praised his government’s successful de-radicalisation programme.

Indonesia used the assembly meeting to launch its candidacy for non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council – a powerful organ within the UN charged with maintaining international peace and security.

The world’s most populous Islamic nation has pledged to increase its peacekeeping force to 4,000 by 2019 and to fight terrorism regionally and globally.

Speaking to the assembly, Indonesian vice-president Jusuf Kalla identified democracy, tolerance, pluralism and peace as virtuous objectives.

Reacting to regional nations’ showing at the assembly, Tang Siew Mun, head of the Asean Studies Centre at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said that the assembly, while far from perfect, could be considered an equaliser within the UN.

“Although it has been critically lambasted as a ‘talk shop’, it does serve the important function of giving voice to each and every member of the organisation, regardless of its size and power,” he said.

Mun added that membership of the security council is highly sought after due to the greater international reach it provides.

“The UN Security Council is the playground of the powerful states, especially the ‘Permanent Five’ members, while [the General Assembly] is the domain of the less powerful,” he said.