ASEAN’s New Human Rights Agenda?

By Anja Jetschke| 17 August 2017 on LSE SEAC

Flickr Creative Commons: United States Mission Geneva — Human Rights Council 25th Session

On November 18, 2012, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) took the historical step of issuing an ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration is only the last of a number of steps expressing ASEAN’s commitment to human rights. This commitment became first visible in the ASEAN Charter of 2007 promising that the regional grouping would establish its own human rights mechanism.

The mechanism was eventually set up in October 2009 with the ASEAN Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR). The development has surprised many observers, as Southeast Asian states vary in their degree of democracy: democracies and even democratising states are a clear minority in the regional grouping. Moreover, ASEAN and individual members were quite active in the so called ‘Asian values debate’ in the early 1990s, in which they promoted a relativist position on human rights, emphasising economic development to the detriment of civil and political rights (Emmerson, 1995; Kausikan, 1994).

This development raises several questions, both practical and theoretical:

  • On a practical level, ASEAN’s human rights commitment raises the question of whether it undermines the ASEAN way of cooperation. ASEAN has acquired an image of an organisation anxiously guarding member states’ sovereignty — are members changing their perspectives?
  • On a theoretical level, the decision raises the question of what explains human rights commitment.

While a number of theories explain commitment on a state level, one approach dominates as explanation for regional human rights commitment: ‘democratic lock-in’ (Moravcsik, 2000; Simmons, 2009). This blog develops an alternative causal mechanism to regional human rights commitment, relying on negative ‘externalities’ — the costs of a decision carried by third parties — of repressive policies in a state. It argues that transnational refugee flows constitute such an externality, influencing member states’ willingness to commit to human rights on a regional level:

Refugees are prima facie evidence of human rights violations and vulnerability (Betts & Loescher, 2011: 1).

Refugee flows are not only an outcome of human rights violations but can also be a driver of human rights commitment - if they impose costs on neighbouring states and if these are larger than the sovereignty costs that a regional human rights commitment entails. Repressive practices of member states can affect member states of an existing regional arrangement in a direct and indirect way, both increasing the chance to establish a human rights mechanism:

  • 1) Contiguous states are directly affected by the human rights practices of their less democratic neighbours, most importantly by refugee flows. While perceptions of refugees differ and can also be a positive externality, refugee flows potentially have material and political re-distributive effects and they frequently raise security concerns within the host societies. Committing to human rights on a regional level is then a strategy of refugee management by dealing with its root cause: political repression.
  • 2) Even when states are not directly affected, they can be indirectly affected by the loss of individual and collective reputation when other actors attribute responsibility to them for the policies of their repressive neighbours. Committing to human rights on a regional level is then a strategy of reputation management.
Flickr Creative Commons: Manhhai — Hue 1972, Vietnamese child refugee stands in the road to Hue during the Vietnam War

Overall, as one of the major effects of repressive policies, refugee flows create a situation of interdependent decision-making in which the decision of one government has consequences for the decisions of other governments. By its very nature then, refugee flows have consequences for other governments, undermining the sovereignty of neighbouring states and posing challenges to the non-interference norm. Thus, we should expect this mechanism to work also in cases where strong democratic norms are absent. We can test this argument through process tracing of the motivations that led ASEAN governments to commit to human rights and through a quantitative test of the association between refugee flows and regional human rights commitment.

ASEAN presents a particularly good test case for the argument. First, commitment to human rights on both a state and regional level, has been traditionally low. ASEAN members have consistently defended a concept of ‘Asian Values’ in the international human rights discourse since the early 1990s, emphasising that human rights were of Western origin and therefore foreign to Asia, that human rights must respect cultural differences, and that economic development is relatively more important than the granting of civil and political rights (Phan, 2015: 79–81). The norms and values regularly invoked by its treaties and agreements thus emphasise the nation-state and Westphalian norms of interstate conduct, such as non-interference and the sovereignty of states. And whereas 100% of all regional treaties in Europe mention human rights as a normative standard, this is true for only 26% of the treaties and agreements in Asia. Thus, appreciation for human rights is still very low (Jetschke, Theiner, Marggraf, & Münch, 2017). This, in effect, not only makes ASEAN a least likely case for regional human rights commitment, but also should make it easier to observe the mechanism in the first place as the context is less infused with human rights and democracy norms that might distort the causal mechanism.

“Commitment to human rights on both a state and regional level, has been traditionally low”.
Flickr Creative Commons: United to End Genocide — IMG_0061

The argument that regional human rights commitment can be a coordinated into a collective effort toward diminishing the direct and indirect costs of refugee flows makes several genuine contributions to the existing literature:

First, it complements the most influential theoretical explanation for regional human rights commitment to date, the theory of democratic lock-in. Instead of new democracies, it can be transnational refugee flows that increase the chance of regional human rights commitment.
Second, it provides a causal mechanism explicating how transnational refugee flows translate into human rights commitment on a regional level.
Third, it contributes to the rising literature on the effects of refugees on important phenomena in international relations, such as civil wars (Salehyan & Gleditsch, 2006), and answers the call of an emerging literature on migration to leverage the concept of the discipline of International Relations on refugee and migration studies (Betts & Loescher, 2011).
Fourth, empirically, it contributes to the area studies literature on ASEAN and more generally cooperation among predominantly authoritarian states, as it challenges those accounts that have considered an ASEAN human rights commitment unlikely.

By building upon and expanding an established literature on ASEAN’s human rights commitment (Ciorciari, 2012; Davies, 2012; Doyle, 2014; Katanyuu, 2006; Kipgen, 2012; Langlois, 2012; Thio, 1999), one can argue that there are endogenous incentives for ASEAN members to commit to human rights on a regional level. But under what conditions can this non-costly commitment be translated in real changes on the ground?

One mechanism of change is clearly the very possibility of having an open discussion on human rights. Since ASEAN’s decision to establish such a mechanism, open discussion, as reflected in news reporting on the issue has grown tremendously. A count of newspaper reports mentioning ASEAN and human rights shows that the number of reports has increased, from 704 in 2004 to 2253 in 2012. Moreover, the ASEAN members Indonesia and the Philippines are currently quite keen to convey the lessons of their internal militarised conflicts to Myanmar. Several non-governmental organisations are currently facilitating informal meetings among members of governments for an exchange of experiences. Hence, under the condition that such learning can be institutionalised through existing bodies such as AICHR, there might be a chance that the human rights commitment by ASEAN member states might translate into real changes of human rights practices. Moreover, an important mechanism to translate governments’ commitment into practice appears to be the commitment to grant an effective remedy for cases of human rights violations. If used by human rights groups and individuals, this standard might trigger substantial changes.


This blog has been published as part of a series of papers that were presented at the LSE Southeast Asia Forum (SEAF) in May 2017. This annual event provides a unique opportunity to engage with Southeast Asia’s most critical issues, network with renowned experts and participate in high-level debate. For more information, please click here.

Anja Jetschke presented as part of the second panel of the day, which reviewed the 50 years of ASEAN regional order, looking closely at the intraregional and external dimensions of the region, its domestic and foreign policy, and its human rights agendas.

Professor Anja Jetschke is Professor of International Relations at the University of Göttingen and currently the Vice-President of the German Political Science Association. From 2012–2015 she headed a research programme on international governance at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (Hamburg). Prof Jetschke’s research interests focus on the design and effects of international institutions, with a particular focus on regional organisations in Asia.

The Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre (SEAC) is a cross-disciplinary, regionally-focused academic centre within the Institute of Global Affairs at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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