HUMAN RIGHTS

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HUMAN RIGHTS, ASEAN, AND CONSTRUCTIVISM:
REVISITING THE “ASIAN VALUES” DISCOURSE
by Herman Joseph S. Kraft
INTRODUCTION
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there have been little clear policy shifts in terms of human
rights across the SE Asian region
particularly evident in the context of the Association of
Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) where the principle of noninterference is used as a rationale for the absence of
regional human rights
ASIAN VALUES DISCOURSE
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represents an attempt by political elites in SE Asia to engage
Western countries in a debate over the nature of human rights
points of contention
o cultural relativism vs. universalism
– ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism: “human rights are
universal, but they must be considered in the
context of… national and regional particularities
and various historical, cultural, and religious
backgrounds”
o individual rights vs. communitarianism + rights vs.
duties and obligations
o primacy of economic development over civil and political
rights
asserts that human rights norms are based on Western liberal
democratic values and are therefore
o contrary to indigenous Asian values; and
o bound to harm the international competitiveness of Asian
economies
economic development and growth > political and civil rights
because the community’s needs, rights, and security are the
priority
factors that legitimize the discourse
o economic success of the countries whose political leaders
were advocates of the discourse
– economic prosperity = success
– the need to sacrifice human rights for economic
growth
o “support” given to the discourse by ASEAN
– absence of any discussion on human rights issues
implied acceptance of the claims made by the
advocates of the discourse
– “non-interference” principle = ASEAN doesn’t care
about human rights issues of individual states
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reflects the collective interest formulated by the ASEAN
states as developing states in the post-colonial era, with the
intention of establishing and maintaining stability
o duality of security and development, and the threat that
human rights poses to both
o human rights are no more than a Western construct
intended to maintain the subordinate position of
developing countries in the world order
strong states = stability + economic welfare of its citizens =
authoritarianism
states have the final say on whether or not they should
implement a particular set of rights
o however, countries may not be signatories to certain
international conventions but they may adhere to the
spirit of their provisions
o e.g. Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand not signing for
the UNCR 1967 protocol despite providing refugees
educational facilities
CONSTRUCTIVIST APPROACH
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constructivism is basically finding the middle ground between
Western liberal values (human rights and democracy) and Asian
values (prioritizing economic growth) #WestxEastAU
2 basic claims
o fundamental structures of international politics are
social rather than strictly material
o these structures shape actors’ identities and interests
rather than just their behavior
institutions: structures of identities and interests codified
in formal rules and norms
o norms only have motivational force, they are not above
the individuals who embody them
o norms become a guide for the behavior of international
actors and standard against which this behavior is
evaluated by others
has been used to investigate the behavioral norms of ASEAN
with reference to regional security, in which the norms are:
o respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of
all nations (oh so that’s why China isn’t part lol)
o non-interference: moral guarantee against unwanted
superpower involvement in their national affairs
o settlement of disputes by peaceful means
o renunciation of the threat or use of force
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia: “developing
societies cannot afford to be complacent, and a balance
between individual rights and social responsibility must be
made to prevent anarchy and sustain economic development”
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example: Suharto regime in Indonesia
o Suharto managed to push the Indonesian economy into the
ranks of the second-tier of new industrializing economies
in Asia
o also focused on growth and equity = higher incomes,
reduced poverty, improved health and welfare
o public’s acceptance of the economic prosperity = loss of
authoritarian structures’ legitimacy = discrediting the
Asian values on human rights
the Asian values discourse will eventually give way to a more
liberal perspective once a strong middle class emerges from
the economic prosperity of the region
FLEXIBLE ENGAGEMENT IN ASEAN
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asserted that members of ASEAN should be allowed to discuss
each other’s domestic affairs openly if these have an impact
outside their borders
call for greater flexibility in expressing views and giving
advice to each other on policies pursued by each country that
could affect ASEAN as a whole
ADOPTION OF THE ASEAN REGIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS MECHANISM
 stresses the importance of strengthening international
cooperation on all aspects of human rights
 argues that all governments should uphold human standards and
respect human dignity
 however, there is still a “code of silence” that pervades the
association regarding human rights issues in the region
o affirms that Asian values are merely a justification for
authoritarian rule and the legitimization of regimes in
power in the member-states of ASEAN
o caused people to think that Asian values = self-serving
values
o reflective of norms that the members of ASEAN claim to
adhere to
THE IMPORTANCE OF CIVIL SOCIETY
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NGOs and civil society groups have been marginalized
o states are jealous of nonstate actors’ sovereignty, so
many resist collective identification more than other
actors
o their concerns over human rights are carried over into
the discussions of ASEAN officials in a non-official
context
o only the Philippines and Thailand have accorded space to
these groups which gave expression to these discourses
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have been critical of the authoritarian implications of the
Asian values argument, but have never really accepted the
universalist interpretation of human rights presented by the
West
 the debate failed…
o to capture the perspective of those who not only condemn
violations of human rights in their own countries; and
o aspire to construct long-term visions of human rights and
political morality that do justice to their countries’
historical backgrounds and mesh with their cultural
traditions
TRANSFORMING INSTITUTIONS AND THEIR NORMS
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the possibility of changing institutions depends on whether or
not the interaction involving its members allows for a degree
of freedom to deviate from the prescribed norms
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ASEAN looks down upon behavior that deviates from strict
interpretations of its norms
the practices and info that challenge any role identity are
likely to create cognitive discord and even perceptions of
threat which may cause resistance to the transformations of
the self and thus to social change
the survival of the norms brought about by Asian values is the
reason human rights in the ASEAN region remains marginalized
in official discourses
the ASEAN, to remain relevant to SE Asia, must review these
norms and ground itself anew in norms that must address human
rights and democratization in the region
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