Lawmakers urge Asean to address human rights issues

A group of lawmakers has urged South-east Asia's leaders to address pressing human rights issues when they meet in Singapore this week for the 32nd Asean Summit.

Asean should also look into setting up mechanisms and institutions to safeguard human rights and respond effectively if these are violated, the lawmakers said in an open letter published yesterday.

The letter from the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a group of lawmakers past and present, asked Asean not to overlook human rights concerns, even as it 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 against 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.

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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.

'' THE ASEAN PARLIAMENTARIANS FOR HUMAN RIGHTS, in its letter.

In the 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 centred 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 also 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 for 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, the MPs said.

Asean's leaders are in Singapore till Saturday for the summit and related meetings.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2018, with the headline 'Lawmakers urge Asean to address human rights issues'. Print Edition | Subscribe