The ASEAN Synthesis: Human Rights, Non-Intervention, and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration by Matthew Davies

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Dr. Mathew Davies is a Research Fellow at the Department of International Relations, School of International, Political and Strategic Studies, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University in Canberra, Australia.

"The preoccupation with non-intervention rendered ASEAN hostile terrain for any concern with human rights..."
"One of the more progressive aspects of the Declaration is that it provides detail to ASEAN’s discussions about rights for the first time..."
"Illiberal states tend to sign human rights treaties more to satisfy international pressure that they should sign than because of a true commitment to the moral weight of the documents themselves..."

The ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD) has been welcomed as the most impressive commitment to protecting human rights within ASEAN ever created. At the same time, others have criticized it as fatally flawed, creating no meaningful regional oversight of human rights. In this article I argue that this range of reactions is explicable by understanding the Declaration as embodying what I term the “ASEAN synthesis” between progressive and traditionalist positions held by member states. Since 1997 the progressives have lobbied for substantial reform of ASEAN, including a commitment to human rights. The traditionalists, while not opposed to reform, envisage a traditional approach to regional affairs that prioritizes member-state security through commitments to sovereign equality and non-intervention. The ASEAN synthesis reconciles these two agendas by legitimizing the discussion of human rights within the regional framework while also reinforcing the principle of non-intervention, seriously curtailing the ability of regional institutions and declarations to engage in proactive rights protection.

The argument unfolds in three parts. The discussion first identifies the members and interests of the progressive and traditionalist camps, placing them in the context of ASEAN’s evolution since 1967 and with particular attention to the 1997 Financial Crisis as the trigger for their emergence. The second section examines the evolution of ASEAN from 1997-2012 and argues that this process can be understood as representing the synthesis of the progressive interest in human rights as aims and the traditionalist focus on orthodox practices. The final section examines the AHRD itself to reveal the influence of both interest groups... (purchase article...)