ASEAN’s Human Rights Practice and Japanese Diplomacy

Hiro Katsumata, PhD


2008 Lisbon Forum, 10-11 November 2008


In some of the Southeast Asian countries, human rights conditions are dire. In particular, the countries which joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the 1990s have many problems. However, ASEAN plays a minor role in improving the situation in its member countries. The approach of ASEAN to human rights issues is largely tolerant and non-intrusive, taking no coercive measures. It is based on the principles of ASEAN diplomacy, including mutual respect for state sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of other states. ASEAN’s approach is distinct from the methods of human rights diplomacy pursued by the Western advanced industrialized democracies, such as the US and the members of the European Union (EU).

It is hard to be optimistic about the prospects for the promotion of human rights and democracy in Southeast Asia. This is because ASEAN is not an association founded on a shared liberal identity. Although some of the members are liberal states, the enactment of such an identity is not an important element of ASEAN diplomacy. The absence of such an identity distinguishes ASEAN from the EU. Unlike the case with the EU, liberalism and democracy are not part of the requirements for membership in ASEAN. Remarkably, what is required instead is a pledge to respect ASEAN’s non-interference principle, which can become an obstacle to the promotion of human rights and democracy. The four countries which joined the association in the late 1990s – Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia – had to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), which stipulates principles such as mutual respect for state sovereignty and non-interference.

Some Changes2
To be sure, in recent years, ASEAN diplomacy is changing. The ASEAN members are beginning to be attentive to human rights and democracy. They have been setting out a number of plans for liberal reform. In November 2007, they signed the ASEAN Charter, which will enter into force once all of them ratify it. Article 14 of the Charter stipulates that “ASEAN shall establish an ASEAN human rights body.” In addition, they have set out a plan to establish an “ASEAN security community,” whose objectives include the promotion of human rights and democracy. In October 2003, they announced this plan for the first time, and in November 2004, they adopted a Plan of Action for a security community, which underlines their “shared vision and common values to achieve … democracy in the region.”

The progress of ASEAN’s liberal reform has been modest. This is because the ASEAN members have been trying to maintain the unity of their association. The maintenance of the unity of the association is still the most important purpose of ASEAN diplomacy for all the members. After all, ASEAN has become a global player, only because its members have been able to speak with one voice. Since its establishment, this association of minor powers, by acting as one body, has been able to ensure a bigger role for Southeast Asia than any member could have played alone.
For the purpose of maintaining the unity of ASEAN, liberal reform is undesirable, since some of the members are reluctant to pursue liberal agendas. It is therefore understandable that the ASEAN members have been careful not to seek a sudden change in their practice. In the case of Myanmar, they have been careful not to alienate this country. Although the US and the EU have repeatedly urged the ASEAN countries to take punitive action against the Yangon government, they have not agreed to so. The worst scenario for them is that Yangon will become China’s proxy, speaking on behalf of Beijing. In this respect, ASEAN needs Myanmar as much as – or perhaps more than – Yangon needs the Southeast Asian association.

Japan’s Approach to Human Rights in Southeast Asia4
It can be said that Japan makes little effort to promote human rights in Southeast Asia. In comparison with other advanced industrialized democracies, including the US and the EU members, Tokyo’s approach is less intrusive and coercive, and more tolerant and accommodative. Japan does not criticize the target country in the way that the US and the EU do. Nor does it impose economic or political sanctions, comparable to those of the US or the EU. It gives due consideration to ASEAN’s diplomatic style, and thus does not pressure the members of ASEAN to change their diplomatic practices vis--vis other members.
The distinctiveness of Japanese human rights diplomacy is apparent in its policies toward Myanmar. Japan does not impose a trade embargo and any of the various forms of economic and political sanction against Yangon, which could be compared with the measures taken by the US and the EU.
Japan has been sympathetic to the special concern of the Southeast Asian countries over state sovereignty, and thus takes a non-intrusive approach. While Japan sees itself as an advanced industrialized democracy, it also identifies itself as an Asian country, and thus has been sympathetic to the special concern of other Asian countries. The countries of Southeast Asia are particularly concerned over state sovereignty for historical reasons, and regard the principle of non-interference as an important element of regional diplomacy. Japan, as an Asian country, has been sympathetic to their concern, and thus takes a non-intrusive approach to human rights issues.

1 Hiro Katsumata, “Reconstruction of Diplomatic Norms in Southeast Asia: The Case for Strict Adherence to the ASEAN Way,” Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 25, No. 1 (April 2003), pp. 104-121.

2 Hiro Katsumata, “Why is ASEAN Diplomacy Changing?: From ‘Non-Interference’ to ‘Open and Frank Discussions,’” Asian Survey, Vol. 44, No. 2 (March/April 2004), pp. 237-254; and Hiro Katsumata, “Human Rights and Democracy: from Big Talk to Concrete Actions?” in Hiro Katsumata and See Seng Tan (eds.), People’s ASEAN and Governments’ ASEAN, RSIS Monograph No. 11 (Singapore: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, 2007), pp. 33-40.

3 Ibid.

4 Hiro Katsumata, “Why does Japan Downplay Human Rights in Southeast Asia?” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, Vol. 6, No. 2 (2006), pp. 249-267.