President Obama will meet with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states in Rancho Mirage, California, on 15-16 February 2016.
“The US foreign policy shift to focus on the Asia-Pacific is destined to fail if it does not make democratic reforms and respect for human rights in the region its core component. It is imperative that President Obama press for progress on human rights as a precondition for any talks on strengthening political, security, and economic ties with ASEAN governments,” said FIDH President Karim Lahidji.
In his 20 January 2015 State of the Union Address, President Obama declared that the US defends free speech, advocates for political prisoners, and condemns the persecution of women, religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The US President must repeat this message during the Summit and ensure that ASEAN leaders make public commitments towards improving the human rights situation in their respective countries.
Hundreds of political prisoners remain incarcerated in appalling conditions in jails across Southeast Asia. Governments in the region continue to use repressive laws that do not comply with international standards to harass, arbitrarily detain, and imprison activists and human rights defenders. In many ASEAN member states the space for civil society and political dissent is either non-existent or rapidly shrinking. Violations of civil and political rights, including the right to freely choose their elected representatives, the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the right to freedom of association, and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly are categorically denied or increasingly curtailed. Across the region, ethnic and religious minorities continue to suffer persecution at the hands of state actors or with their complicity or acquiescence.
Even countries that seem to have made significant strides towards the respect of democratic principles, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, remain mired in serious human rights challenges, including impunity for serious past abuses, such as extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.
Under the banner of the fight against terrorist networks, several governments in the region have already proposed or enacted laws that will allow for the encroachment on fundamental freedoms and the commission of further human rights violations. As a result, security cooperation between the US and ASEAN governments must be conducted within a rigorous regulatory framework that ensures the respect of international human rights standards.
FIDH and its Southeast Asian member organizations urge President Obama to put on hold any form of US military assistance to ASEAN governments whose security forces continue to commit human rights violations until clear benchmarks of democratization, respect for human rights, and accountability for abuses are met.
The conclusion of free trade and investment agreements with ASEAN Member States is also a matter of grave concern. The current situation in Cambodia illustrates that the granting of trade privileges in the presence of a weak legal framework, rampant corruption, and a seriously flawed judicial system can result in serious violations of economic, social, and cultural rights. In addition, the implementation of infrastructure and investment projects across the region has often led to unchecked exploitation of natural resources, forced evictions, displacement, loss of livelihood, and environmental degradation.
“The US would be shooting itself in the foot if it pursues security cooperation and free trade agreements without prior adoption of strong human rights safeguards. Our region is already in distress from the deteriorating human rights situation, and none of us, the US included, can afford for it to get any worse,” said Altsean-Burma Coordinator and FIDH Secretary-General Debbie Stothard.