Human rights advocates say ASEAN leaders are paying even less attention than usual to human rights concerns across the region despite their commitment to ramp up ties on a range of issues at this year’s leaders gathering in Laos.

September’s summit ended with the 10-nation bloc and its partners agreeing to enhance trade co-operation, connectivity, sustainable development and disaster relief in the hugely diverse region of more than 600 million people.

But injustices such as a clampdown on human rights defenders, as well as media restrictions, forced labour, sexual violence and human trafficking were ignored during the gathering in Ventiane, the first high profile meeting of regional and international leaders since the establishment of the ASEAN Community in late 2015.

“Human rights issues are never given prominence at ASEAN summits, but the most recent summit in Laos was worse than what we’ve seen in recent times,” said Sam Zarifi, the regional director for Asia and the Pacific at the International Commission of Jurists.

Robert Hårdh, the executive director of the Stockholm-based Civil Rights Defenders, went further: “The human rights violations across ASEAN member states in the context of entrenched impunity must be addressed immediately,” he told The Citizen. “So far, ASEAN summits are annual rituals devoid of any meaningful debate — let alone actions — on human rights protection.”

A recent Amnesty International report concluded that the overall human rights picture in the region was worsening due to impunity (often for violations committed by security forces), violence against women, crackdowns on freedom of expression and undue pressure on civil society.

Late last year, the US-based watchdog Freedom House rated Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Brunei as “not free” due to systemic violations of civil and political liberties, while the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore were categorised as “partly free” due to several restrictions on the rights of their citizens.

“The human rights violations across ASEAN member states in the context of entrenched impunity must be addressed immediately.” — human rights campaigner Robert Hårdh

One of the specific issues on which advocates are demanding action is the case of Laotian civil rights advocate Sombath Somphone, who disappeared after being arrested in Vientiane in December, 2012.

While Lao authorities continue to disregard concerns raised by foreign governments and human rights groups about Sombath’s disappearance, Human Rights Watch has labelled the case the country’s most serious human rights violation of recent times.

In Cambodia, perpetrators of human rights abuses rarely face accountability and courts suffer a lack of judicial independence. Because of these serious flaws, those responsible for committing human rights violations are rarely brought to justice, reinforcing a cycle of further violations.

In Myanmar, a culture of impunity for human rights violations committed by security forces endures. The violations include unlawful killings, sexual violence against women and forced labour.

The ICJ’s Mr Zarifi says the first step in addressing these pressing human rights challenges is for the bloc to acknowledge and fix the very serious flaws in the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.

The commission was established in 2009 under Article 14 of the ASEAN Charter. It is one of the association’s offshoots with an overarching mandate for the promotion and protection of human rights in the region. The human rights body was given the formidable task of “upholding the right of the people of ASEAN to live in peace, dignity and prosperity”, along with the caveat that the commission remain within the scope of ASEAN principles.

“The glaring disparity between the policies and the practices of ASEAN must be addressed.” — political analyst Khoo Ying Hooi

Political analyst Dr Khoo Ying Hooi, of the University of Malaya, said the commission had suffered from weak mandates impairing any meaningful reform.

“The glaring disparity between the policies and the practices of ASEAN must be addressed,” she told The Citizen in response to questions.

Noting that the regional body had often been criticised as an elite-driven and state-centric organisation, she added: “ASEAN needs to do away with its top-down approach in order to represent the people.”

Mr Zarifi agreed, adding that commission representatives should be appointed as individual experts, rather than government proxies.

“Unless [the commission] is improved, it will fade away into irrelevance,” he said.

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