Australia: Spotlight Rights at Summit with ASEAN

    • Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese should focus on human rights concerns and democratic backsliding at the upcoming summit with Southeast Asian leaders.
    • Human rights conditions have worsened in ASEAN countries in recent years, and ASEAN as an organization has done little to address key crises among its members.
    • Key concerns include the need for stronger sanctions against Myanmar and ending attacks on dissidents in Cambodia and Vietnam, and security forces’ targeting of activists in the Philippines.

    (Sydney) – Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese should focus on human rights concerns and democratic backsliding at the upcoming summit with Southeast Asian leaders, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Albanese will host leaders from nine of the countries making up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit on March 4 to 6, 2024, in Melbourne.

    The 60-page report, “Human Rights in Southeast Asia,” summarizes critical human rights issues that Albanese should raise at the summit. Human Rights Watch urged the Australian government to put its values as a rights-respecting democracy at the core of its relations with ASEAN countries. As the Australian government approaches the summit with the goal of removing blockages to regional economic cooperation, it should not bypass human rights concerns in the hopes that they will resolve themselves, because they will not.

    “This high-level meeting would be a lost opportunity for Australia and the people of ASEAN countries if the Australian government were to gloss over human rights issues,” said Daniela Gavshon, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Australian government should send the message that human rights violations are a key foreign policy concern.”

    It will be especially important for Australia to guide discussion toward human rights since the subject has been left off the summit agenda.

    The summit marks 50 years of ASEAN-Australia dialogue relations. Over the past five decades, successive Australian governments have pursued closer economic, security, and political partnerships with ASEAN countries. Australia continues to strengthen its ties with Southeast Asian countries to offset the shift in global power dynamics.

    United States influence in the region is being challenged by the growing political, economic, and military clout of a more assertive China. To counter China’s threat to human rights and the rules-based international order, Australia should center its dialogue with ASEAN leaders on the rights of Southeast Asian people rather than just on strengthening friendly relations.

    The anniversary presents a unique opportunity to reflect on human rights in the region and to reframe the next 50 years of Australia-ASEAN cooperation. Albanese has already projected the next half-century to be “even more successful than the last” for ASEAN-Australia relations, and pledged A$95.4 million (US$63.9 million) to kick-start Australia’s Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040.

    In a February letter, Human Rights Watch urged Prime Minister Albanese to press for commitments from individual countries at the summit, and raise specific human rights issues with individual governments.

    “Human rights conditions have worsened in ASEAN countries in recent years and ASEAN as an organization has done little to address key crises among its members,” Gavshon said. “Australia’s failure to directly address human rights concerns at the summit would be a propaganda coup for abusive leaders, and it will embolden new ASEAN leaders to continue the human rights abusing legacies of their predecessors.”

    In its most serious human rights lapse, ASEAN has not dealt with the spiralling humanitarian and human rights crisis in Myanmar. The consequences have spilled over the borders of Thailand, India, and China, and contributed to the continued suffering of ethnic Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh. Tens of thousands have sought safety in neighboring countries since the 2021 coup by the Myanmar military. In addition, Rohingya who fled crimes against humanity and acts of genocide in 2017 cannot return. Given increasing insecurity and deteriorating conditions in the camps housing one million Rohingya in Bangladesh, 4,500 made the high-risk sea voyage to Indonesia or Malaysia in 2023, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

    ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus – which Myanmar’s junta repudiated days after agreeing to it in April 2021 – is not a viable framework for dealing with a military that continues to commit crimes against humanity and war crimes. Australian and ASEAN governments should agree to enforce sanctions against Myanmar, including those newly imposed by Australia on banks and jet fuel suppliers, in their own jurisdictions. Together, Albanese and Southeast Asian leaders should commit to strengthening multilateral action at the UN Security Council.

    Among other key rights issues to be addressed is the Thai and Cambodian governments’ cooperation to uncover, intimidate, and arrest Cambodian civil society activists in Thailand. In Vietnam, the government systematically suppresses freedom of expression and other basic liberties. In the Philippines, the security forces target activists, rights defenders, and journalists, often with deadly results.

    State-sponsored discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia remains pervasive. On an institutional level, ASEAN purports to respect the human rights of its 685 million citizens. However, its Human Rights Declaration and ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) have no real impact.

    In its capacity as summit host, the Australian government can direct conversations with a human rights focus. It can encourage openness by acknowledging the deficiencies in its own domestic rights record. This forthright approach will send the message that strong diplomatic relations still thrive without condoning or covering up allies’ human rights concerns, Human Rights Watch said.

    “The 50th anniversary of ASEAN-Australia dialogue relations marked at this summit could be a turning point,” Gavshon said. “Looking forward to 2040, the region will face environmental challenges, economic uncertainty, and strategic competition, but these challenges can be lessened if governments show respect for human rights and democracy.”

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