Enhancing human rights protection and promoting democracy


Voicu Alis-Ștefania*

The EU-ASEAN relations proved to be strong and long-lasting with benefits for both regions involved. Their cooperation flourished quickly and expanded from the field of politics and security to the economic and socio-cultural sphere. Besides from strengthening the commercial ties and improving investment relations, supporting the development of a powerful socio-cultural community has become one of the main objectives of the EU-ASEAN dialogue. Part of the cooperation comes through policy dialogue and also through the EU support programmes. ASEAN benefits from EU programmes in various areas such as education, environment and climate change, health, governance, science and innovation, etc. Moreover, enhancing the cooperation in order to maintain peace and stability in the ASEAN member states also means paying attention to vital social issues such as strengthening the protection of human rights, building an active civil society, highlighting the benefits of cultural diversity and encouraging interfaith dialogue.                                                                                                                I believe that it is necessary for the European Union to engage ASEAN in a manner that recognizes the cultures of its (ASEAN’s) member states. The cultural aspect is very important in order to develop a productive relationship between the two regional partners especially because above all it brings together people with different cultures and slightly distinctive points of view on specific subjects (as, for example, regarding the necessity of religious education in schools, promoting economic growth through culture and tourism, etc.). It is essential that EU should not be seen as imposing its own views as it offers its cooperation and assistance in key areas such as human development and promoting democracy. I consider that a vital aspect of the relationship between the EU and ASEAN lies in creating a friendly environment where the cultural and religious diversity is respected and promoted, along with the process of democracy building, enhancing human rights protection, and sustaining education. State members of both groups are rich in experiences and may share valuable information about these areas that can serve, later on, as examples for the world community.                                                                                                      In my opinion, democracy building focuses mainly on creating a solid and active civil society with a growing interest for sustainable development and a better national and global understanding. I also think that human rights represent a strong point of interest which should put together the efforts of both sides, EU’s and ASEAN’s, in order to be effectively applied in society. For instance, a programme for capacity enhancement in democracy building must be developed in close consultation with the cooperating member states. The EU’s role should be of an organization that wants to listen and learn in order to strengthen and sustain partnership. Regarding the promotion and improvement of human rights, ASEAN followed the example of the United Nations, borrowing similar initiatives which were to be put in practice. By adopting the ASEAN Charter in 2007 the basic principles of a human rights project were initialized, the references to be found in:

 Preamble - “adhering to the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance, respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms” and  in

Articles 1.7 -“to strengthen democracy, enhance good governance and the rule of law, and to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, with due regard to the rights and responsibilities of the Member states of ASEAN”, 2.2 (h) - “adherence to the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional government, 2.2 (i)- “respect for fundamental freedoms, the promotion and protection of human rights, and the promotion of social justice, 2.2 (l) respect for the different cultures, languages and religions of the peoples of ASEAN, while emphasizing their common values in the spirit of unity in diversity”.

As a follow up of the provisions of the ASEAN Charter, in 2009 the specifically guided ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) was created. The human rights body serves as the promoter and protector of democracy and addresses democratic deficits in the region.                                                                                                                                AICHR is comprised of ten government representatives; one per ASEAN member state. ASEAN members contribute in equal amounts to AICHR’s budget. AICHR activities are also funded by international donors such as the European Union. The AICHR releases annual reports regarding the conducted meetings and activities (such as workshops, dialogues, forums, etc.) which are available on the Human Rights in ASEAN Online Platform, AICHR’s Terms of Reference define its purpose, mandate and functions. The Terms of Reference impose AICHR to keep the public periodically informed of its work and activities. AICHR has done so by issuing press releases, publishing information brochures, and creating a dedicated website. AICHR is mandated to: develop strategies for the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, develop an ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, enhance public awareness of human rights through education, research, and dissemination of information, undertake capacity building for the effective implementation of ASEAN member states’ international human rights treaty obligations and ASEAN human rights instruments, encourage ASEAN member states to ratify international human rights instruments, provide ASEAN with advisory services and technical assistance on human rights matters upon request, engage in dialogue and consultation with other ASEAN bodies and entities associated with ASEAN, including civil society organizations and other stakeholders, obtain information from ASEAN member states on the promotion and protection of human rights, develop common approaches and positions on human rights matters of interest to ASEAN, prepare thematic human rights studies and perform any other tasks assigned by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting.                            In the context of the EU and ASEAN bridging, this important evolution in the ASEAN view and action, even unrealised by the time analysts, it is very relevant to the EU’s offer to cooperate with ASEAN in its democracy building efforts. Since the 1990s, ASEAN-EU relations have been affected by human rights issues. It is important for both parties to clarify their perceptions of each other’s positions and views on human rights. Such clarification was and still is necessary especially because both sides recognize each other’s strategic importance in the midst of worsening global economic, environmental and security crises. In addition, the promotion of flow of information, which is an extension right of freedom of expression was included in the political and security pillar for the first time.                                                             I was very pleased to find out that the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and the Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) – a regional human rights institution – was established in 2010; an intergovernmental commission comprising 20 representatives, two from each of the ASEAN ten member states. It promotes the implementation of international and ASEAN instruments on the rights of women and children, advocates on behalf of women and children, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized, and encourage ASEAN member states to improve their situation, to collect and analyse sex disaggregated data, and undertake periodic reviews of national legislation, policies, and practices related to the rights of women and children and also supports the participation of ASEAN women and children in dialogue and consultation  processes in ASEAN related to the promotion and protection of their rights.                                I was equally satisfied that the first ever EU policy exchange engaging all ASEAN human  rights bodies and committees took place in 2015 in Brussels, proving EU’s commitment to engaging further with ASEAN and opening new avenues of cooperation. Upon the invitation of the EU,  the ACWC visited the headquarters of the European Union in Brussels on 18-22 February 2013 to exchange experiences in promoting and protecting women’s and children’s rights in Europe and Southeast Asia and to explore cooperation in areas of mutual interest. The visit also allowed ACWC representatives to better understand EU institutions, mechanisms, instruments and policy priorities on a broad spectrum of issues relating to women’s and children’s rights.                                                                                                                       However, I have the feeling that for a short or a little bit longer period, human rights remain a predominant concern of the EU’s bilateral relations with ASEAN and I think it is necessary that EU recognize ASEAN’s real achievements in human rights promotion. This, I think, will last until the core of the matter will be understood in the sense that even democracy it is different and based on the national background of every people and country.                              The way I understand, the sensitivity of some ASEAN member states over the issue of human rights and their defensive attitude to criticism from their dialogue partners must be seen in the context of the nature and composition of ASEAN as an intergovernmental organization. The ASEAN member states have been protective of the organization’s principles of non-interference and mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity. Consensus-building is seen as an essential part of the so-called ASEAN Way.                                                                         In my opinion, this sensitivity in ASEAN-EU bridging comes as well from different  perspectives on human rights due to the diverse circumstances of their respective member states mostly because: most ASEAN states won their national independence less than half a century ago and thus place a premium on sovereignty and freedom from external interference, the ASEAN states that serve as models for economic success are strong developmental states that have achieved economic growth and political unity through state patronage and national discipline, there is a wide economic disparity between and within many ASEAN states, the organizational development of ASEAN has differed from  that of the EU, and it has not led to the type of supranational institutions favoured by the EU.                                                                         It is obvious and important to underline that the ASEAN-EU bridging has an encouraging positive trend. The EU is a major development partner for ASEAN, actively supporting the ASEAN member states and institutions in their efforts to deepen regional integration. EU is lending support to ASEAN institutions that are instrumental in supporting ASEAN’s regional integration objectives. For 2014-2020, the EU has significantly increased its development cooperation funds. More than €170 million has been earmarked to fund the ongoing and post-2015 ASEAN regional integration agenda — more than doubling the amount for 2007-2013. In addition, the EU has pledged over €3 billion to reduce poverty and address development gaps in low-income ASEAN countries.                                                                                                    Bandar Seri Begawan Plan of Action to strengthen the ASEAN-EU enhanced partnership (2013-2017) aims to bring cooperation to a higher level, through addressing regional and global challenges of shared concern. It covers a wide range of areas – political/security, economic/trade, socio-cultural – reflecting the multifaceted character of ASEAN-EU relations. Promoting the exchange of experience and best practices among ASEAN member states and the EU on policies and programmes for the well-being of women, children, the elderly, persons with disabilities and migrant workers, gender equality and socio-economic women empowerment and also the exchange of cultural performers and scholars among ASEAN and the EU member states which improves access to understanding of different cultures between both regions and enhance regional awareness are very important points for the ASEAN-EU cooperation.                                 Providing support to ASEAN's socio-cultural community constitutes a relatively new but expanding area of the EU-ASEAN cooperation. For instance, there is an increasing exchange of students and scholars between the two regions. Each year around 250 ASEAN students receive scholarships under the EU Erasmus Mundus programme and around 25 ASEAN scholars a year benefit from Marie Curie Fellowships. Adding to this the many scholarships provided by EU Member states, more than 4,000 ASEAN students per year travel to Europe on EU scholarships. Building on the EU’s Erasmus student exchange programme, “Erasmus+” offers mobility opportunities for Asian students and teachers, notably in higher education. And in addition to “Erasmus+”, under a €10 million project called “EU Support to Higher Education in ASEAN Region”, the EU is working with ASEAN to increase student mobility by helping to harmonise the recognition systems between higher education institutions in ASEAN. Viewed as an important part of EU’s socio-cultural support for ASEAN, the project seeks to help build ASEAN higher education frameworks by sharing Europe’s experience in constructing its own Higher Education Area. The EU and ASEAN have tasked Europe’s four major academic exchange agencies to implement the project: the British Council, Campus France, Germany’s DAAD and EP-Nuffic from the Netherlands. Further support is provided by two specialised Brussels-based organisations, the European University Association (EUA) and the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA). Around half of the project funds will be devoted to student mobility within ASEAN, thus contributing directly to ASEAN people-to-people connectivity and increased regional cooperation. In addition, the quality, competitiveness and internationalisation of ASEAN higher education institutions will also be enhanced.                                                                                                                                      ASEAN’s work on constructing a harmonised higher education sector through comparable academic degrees, measures to ensure more transparency of content in degree programmes and increased mobility for students to better prepare them for the labour market, is very similar to the EU’s own efforts to build a European Higher Education Area. ASEAN is therefore looking at the successes and weaknesses of Europe’s experience in the sector. Europe’s experience is that building stronger connections between universities, students and academics is part of the complex task of bringing people together. As ASEAN seeks to enhance its own people-to-people connectivity, cooperation in the higher education sector looks set to become an ever-more important element of EU-ASEAN cooperation in the coming years.                                            Furthermore the EU-ASEAN Migration and Border Management Programme aimed at increasing the exchange of information between immigration officials in ASEAN capitals and support the easing of visa requirements for ASEAN and non-ASEAN nationals within the region. Thereto another key element in expanding and improving the EU-ASEAN dialogue lies within the efforts and strategies to fight corruption. Corruption continues to be a great concern for national governments and a threat for national economies of the ASEAN member states because it holds back investment in the region and stifle growth in both the public and private sectors. By providing analysis to support policy dialogue, enhancing ASEAN countries’ understanding of international anti-corruption standards and raising awareness of the necessity of anti-corruption policies the EU supports the initiatives for this purpose together with OECD.

Conclusions                                                                                                                             The ASEAN-EU relations developed throughout the time and brought significant improvements in the area of education, human rights, good governance and democracy building. Various programmes and strategies have been implemented, sustained and funded by the EU in the fields listed above in order to support ASEAN’s objectives and efforts. Consequently the dialogue between the two regions represents an opportunity in particular for better human development, for the well-being of the people from the ASEAN member states by advancing and prioritising education, facilitating access to information and communication technology, strengthening and expanding the economic rights of women and youth, building a safe environment and promoting cultural diversity. In my opinion the cooperation represents a plus for both parties because it contributes to building a more transparent and inclusive society with respect for cultural differences, human rights and democratic values. I find very appealing the affirmation of Don Tapscott: “Collaboration is important not just because it's a better way to learn. Learning to collaborate is part of equipping yourself for effectiveness, problem solving, innovation and life-long learning.”                                                                                                 I shall be very happy to see in a very near future that the bridge of partnership and cooperation between ASEAN and EU will become a solid pillar in this today of global development. Together they will better serve the interests, aims and dreams of their countries, enhancing human rights protection and promoting democracy.


*The Author is a 1st year Master’s student at the University of Bucharest, Faculty of Letters, Department of Cultural Studies, Culture and Politics in European and International Context program.