SINGAPORE - Asean lawmakers have urged South-east Asia's leaders to address pressing human rights issues when they meet in Singapore this week for the 32nd Asean Summit, in an open letter published on Wednesday (April 25).
Asean should also look into setting up mechanisms and institutions to safeguard human rights and respond effectively to their violations, added the letter from the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a group of Asean lawmakers past and present.
They asked Asean not to overlook human rights concerns, even as the regional grouping focuses on tackling regional security challenges and promoting economic integration under Singapore's chairmanship this year.
"We recognise the importance of both of these imperatives, but we also urge you to acknowledge that their successful implementation requires...respect for democracy, good governance, sustainable development, and human rights," said the letter, sent to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and forwarded to Asean's other leaders.
Last month, Asean's leaders who gathered in Sydney for an Asean-Australia special summit were greeted by hundreds of activists protesting human rights abuses in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines and Vietnam.
The protesters took aim at Cambodian leader Hun Sen's crackdown on political opponents, the weak freedom of expression in Laos, the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar following the military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's controversial war on drugs, and the treatment of political prisoners in Vietnam.
In Wednesday's letter, the Asean lawmakers argued that some of Asean's emerging security challenges stem from a lack of accountability and the rule of law within its countries.
"The treatment of ethnic and religious minorities, including the Rohingya in Myanmar, must be understood as deeply interconnected to the multitude of other security challenges Asean faces," said the letter signed by the group's chairman and Malaysian MP Charles Santiago.
The Asean community remains primarily centered on economics and business, but more needs to be done to mitigate the downsides of rapid investment and development, argued the letter.
"An overemphasis on economic prerogatives - without adequate corresponding attention to political and social concerns, including human rights - will render Asean unable to achieve substantial and sustainable stability or prosperity," it said.
It called on Asean's leaders to create a strong, legally-binding mechanism to protect the rights of migrants, a pressing issue as more low and medium-skilled workers, often vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, migrate to various Asean countries to work.
Asean must also beef up the mandates of its human rights bodies to protect human rights if it wants to be seen as a credible and outward-looking regional bloc, warned the letter.
It added: "We hope that Singapore will seize this opportunity to continue working toward achieving the human rights benchmarks laid out in the Asean Community Vision 2025 and the Asean Charter, a document adopted during Singapore's previous chairmanship in 2007, and support us in pushing for a region that is truly people-centered - one that is inclusive, sustainable, and benefits all."
Asean's leaders will be in Singapore from Wednesday till Saturday for the summit and related meetings.