For ASEAN, economic issues sideline rights concerns

Regional bloc accused of putting economic and security matters ahead of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Singapore – Southeast Asian leaders have given warning that a growing trade dispute between the US and China is putting their economic growth at risk.

It came at the end of a regional summit on Friday and Saturday of 10 ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries, where economic and security issues have sidelined concerns about human rights.

In his opening address, Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, cautioned that spats between China and the US could affect the bloc.

“The political mood in many countries has shifted against free trade and, in particular, the recent trade tensions between the United States and China are worrying concerns,” Loong said.

“ASEAN countries will have to react to these major external trends.”

US President Donald Trump has threatened to impose tariffs on Chinese imports, with China promising retaliation if he does.

For many ASEAN countries, the US and China are the two biggest trading partners.

But there is an area where ASEAN member states have been criticised for not doing enough.

Drawing criticism

Human rights activists have said ASEAN fails to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The bloc largely stood by in silence when Cambodia shut its independent media organisations and dissolved the main opposition party.

In the Phillipines’s so-called war on drugs, thousands have died in extrajudicial killings.

In Myanmar, there are multiple ongoing crises. Fighting has intensified in Kachin state in the north, displacing thousands.

In Rakhine state, 700,00 Rohingya have fled across the border into Bangladesh since August to escape persecution by the military.

“ASEAN needs to pressure Myanmar to be accountable for what’s happening and to investigate or allow investigators like us – Human Rights Watch and others – to go into these areas, ascertain who is responsible for the atrocities committed against the Rohingya, and then hold them accountable,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch.

“Again, we’re seeing nothing from ASEAN.”

That may be a tall order, however, for a group that prefers to keep a policy of non-interference in the member states’ domestic affairs.