The lady and the paper tigers

The expedient conviction of Aung San Suu Kyi is an opportunity for Asean to show that its recently drafted charter on human rights is worth more than the paper it is printed on

Alistair DB Cook and Caballero-Anthony
September 10, 2009

The expedient conviction of Aung San Suu Kyi is an opportunity for Asean to show that its recently drafted charter on human rights is worth more than the paper it is printed on

The guilty verdict by a Myanmar court on Aung San Suu Kyi for breaking the terms of her house arrest is a further blow to Asean’s international standing. Coming less than a month after Asean members, including Myanmar, accepted the Terms of Reference of their agreement on human rights at a meeting in Thailand, it signals how little progress has been made inside the country, and how little heed Myanmar’s junta take of local and international opinion.

On August 11, Suu Kyi was found guilty by a court held at the notorious Insein prison near Rangoon for breaking the terms of her house arrest. She was found guilty and sentenced toa further 18 months of house arrest for harbouring an American man, John William Yettaw, who swam to her house uninvited.

Once again it brings the focus of human rights concerns back to southeast Asia, and questions what the region is willing to do to resolve the political situation in Myanmar and address human rights issues in general.

It has been a long road to theAsean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and its establishment could not come at a more crucial time for the people of Myanmar. The Joint Communiqué of the 26th Asean Ministerial Meeting in 1993 stated they “agreed that Asean should also consider the establishment of an appropriate regional mechanism on human rights”.

Subsequently, the Asean Human Rights Working Group was formally recognised as an informal regional network on human rights and given the opportunity to meet annually with senior officials of Asean. By 2005, the Asean leaders reached an agreement to draft a charter for the group. They later assigned an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) to make policy recommendations.

At the end of 2006, the EPG recommended that a human rights body be incorporated. This was subsequently included in the final draft of the Asean charter, which was signed at the 40th Asean ministerial meeting, in Manila, the Philippines, in 2007. The charter called for the establishment of a regional human rights body but did not state what its mandate would be.

A High Level Panel was eventually convened to formulate the Terms of Reference, which were finally accepted, though in a much watered-down form, at the 42nd Asean meeting in Phuket in July.

The UN high commissioner for human rights, Navanethem Pillay, recently commented that the world body “strongly encourages Asean states to appoint commission members who are independent and impartial, and have proven expertise in human rights”. The verdict on Suu Kyi will put further pressure on member states to implement the AICHR without delay. It should tackle human rights violations head-on at a time when the world is watching.

A regional response to this verdict is necessary to signal to the people of Myanmar and the international community that Asean is serious about promoting the principles and values that it professes. With the signing of the charter, the association demonstrated that it was ready and willing to take concrete steps in further integrating as a region. More importantly, the signing showed a political shift by the grouping towards commenting on the internal affairs of member countries.

Asean is committed “to strengthen democracy, enhance good governance and the rule of law, to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms”. The events in Myanmar put Asean’s credibility under closer scrutiny. If the charter is a reflection of how the region carries out its business and its governance, then the Asean response to the verdict on Suu Kyi needs to show that the new charter works – and works well.

The trial has illustrated that the military regime in Myanmar is unable to carry out its responsibilities as outlined in the charter. The staging of the trial and its verdict are a clear signal to Asean on how the military regime regards the agreements they are party to – effectively holding the association in contempt. The charge against Suu Kyi does nothing to promote ideas of good governance but smacks of political expediency by a regime that fears democratic change ahead of a proposed election in 2010. The fact that this trial took place around the time that Suu Kyi’s current house arrest was due to expire illustrates this well.

It is now time for Asean to act decisively in accordance with principles of regional peace and security enshrined in the charter. This action will bolster the legitimacy of Asean as the guardian of its citizens. It remains to be seen whether Asean will step up to this challenge and indeed whether its response will yield results. However, it is clear that if Asean does not act, its credibility will be further undermined. It will be difficult for the association to portray itself as providing “regional solutions to regional problems”.

Alistair DB Cook is post doctoral fellow and Mely Caballero-Anthony is associate professor and head at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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