Beyond Cultural Relativism: The Human Rights Mechanism of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations

Project Overview

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Dr Gerard Clarke, Associate Professor of Politics and International Development in the Department of Political and Cultural Studies (PCS), is the Principal Investigator on this project, working alongside Dr Alan Collins (PCS) and Dr Helen Quane (College of Law) as co-investigators. The project is funded by a £30,000 grant from the British Academy through its International Partnership and Mobility scheme, which supports research collaboration between UK-based and overseas universities. Through this project,  Swansea University will collaborate with the University of the Philippines Diliman (UPD), and the research will bring together colleagues in the fields of politics, international relations and law in each institution. The project also allows us to bring in other academics and policy makers from the region to work with Swansea and UPD colleagues.

The project seeks to trace the evolution of the ASEAN human rights mechanism through what we expect to be an important phase in its development. The mechanism consists of a number of institutions and normative frameworks but at its heart sit the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) established in 2009 and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration adopted by ASEAN Heads of State in 2012. Over the next few years however, the mechanism is projected to evolve in important respects.

The terms of reference of AICHR must be reviewed by the end of July 2014, for instance, and it is widely expected that AICHR’s limited ‘promote’ mandate will be strengthened through the addition of a new ‘protect’ mandate as a result of the review. Similarly, AICHR’s operational plans oblige it to start work on a binding ASEAN Human Rights Convention on the adoption of a non-binding ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, although commentators expect that it will eschew a comprehensive convention and instead draft a number of conventions on specific issues such as violence against women, human trafficking, or the rights of migrants. There are also a number of challenges developing working relationships among the institutions of the mechanism, with other ASEAN organs, with national human rights institutions and with regional civil society organizations. 

Significantly, ASEAN plans to establish an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by the end of 2015, based on the establishment of a free trade area. Parallel plans call for the establishment of ASEAN Political and Social Communities to complement the AEC, as part of ASEAN’s commitment to become ‘a people-oriented community’. ASEAN is best known as an intergovernmental body in which policies are implemented through consensus rather than through majority voting, with a single state, for instance, able to block policy reform. The advent of the AEC, however, will push ASEAN towards new supra-national decision making processes in place of inter-governmental ones.

To guard against abuses, we expect that democratic states in ASEAN will demand checks in place to counter supra-national powers for ASEAN, including clear norms and institutions to protect universal human rights standards. Many commentators, however, regard human rights as the most divisive issue in intra-ASEAN politics. We therefore look to developments in the ASEAN human rights mechanism for clues as to the evolving character of ASEAN as it implement plans for a people-oriented community and gradually moves from inter-governmental to supra-national decision-making and dispute-settling roles.

Central to this research will be a series of six conference in Swansea and Manila over the three year period between 2014 and 2017. 

Conferences

The first of these conferences was held in Swansea on Friday, 21 March 2014, with papers by Dr Gerard Clarke and Dr Helen Quane from Swansea University; Prof Elizabeth Aguiling-Pangalangan and Herman Kraft from the University of the Philippines; and Dr Sriprapha Petchamarasee from Mahidol University in Thailand. The conference was opened and closed by Lord Williams of Baglan, PCS Honorary Fellow and former UN Under Secretary General. The five paper-givers then reconvened as a panel for a roundtable on the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration and its Implementation at the Oxford Symposium on Southeast Asian Studies, Keble College, 22-23 March.  Read more here:  http://www.swansea.ac.uk/riah/news/archive/2013-2014/riahhostsfirstconferenceontheaseanhumanrightsmechanism.php

The second conference was held in Manila at the University of the Philippines Dalian in October with presenters also convening as a panel at the third biennial conference of the Southeast Asia Human Rights Studies Network (SEAHRN) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 15-17 October 2014.  Read more here:  http://www.swansea.ac.uk/riah/news/archive/2014-2015/swanseauniversityanduniversityofthephilippinesdilimanstaffpresentpapersatconferencesinthephilippinesandmalaysia.php

Read about the third conference here:  http://www.swansea.ac.uk/riah/news/archive/2014-2015/swanseauniversityhostsconferenceontheaseanhumanrightsmechanism.php