(New York) - US President Barack Obama should urge Asian leaders at the first ASEAN-US summit to unite in addressing the region's most pressing human rights concerns, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch called on Obama, in his meetings with leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to raise the lack of democratic change in Burma, restraints on freedom of expression across the region, widespread impunity for rights violations, and a weak regional human rights institution.
Obama, on his first visit to Asia as president, will meet with ASEAN leaders on November 15, 2009, the day after the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Singapore.
"Obama should use his first trip to Southeast Asia as president to put human rights on the ASEAN agenda," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Burma is the obvious place to start, but media repression and unpunished rights violations are rampant throughout the region."
The Obama administration has undertaken a dual approach to Burma by beginning talks with Burma's senior generals to press them to accept democratic change, while maintaining sanctions until there are genuine improvements. Senior US State Department officials visited Burma earlier this month, and on November 11, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the APEC summit, "We would like to see countries individually and through ASEAN reach out to the Burmese leadership, persuade them that it's time to start planning for free, fair and credible elections in 2010." Clinton also reaffirmed that sanctions will not be lifted until there is progress on democracy in Burma.
Human Rights Watch urged Obama to call on all ASEAN leaders to speak forcefully and with one voice to call for the release of all political prisoners in Burma, including the democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as for an inclusive political process ahead of the 2010 elections.
Obama should also urge ASEAN leaders to meet international standards of refugee protection, considering the large numbers of asylum seekers from Burma seeking sanctuary in Southeast Asian countries, Human Rights Watch said.
"ASEAN leaders have long sent mixed messages on Burma, so Obama should encourage them to unite in a strong statement of support for real democratic reforms," Pearson said. "All ASEAN countries should oppose repression in Burma and adopt basic refugee protections to promote the rights of the Burmese people."
For ASEAN to be an effective force for human rights, Obama should urge leaders to resolve ongoing human rights problems in their own countries, Human Rights Watch said. Obama should publicly reiterate the importance of freedom of expression and media freedom as an integral part of democratic society.
A major problem is the widespread use of legal systems in Southeast Asia to silence peaceful government critics, journalists, and human rights defenders, in violation of international law. Cambodia, Indonesia, and Singapore use criminal defamation laws, Malaysia and Vietnam take advantage of overbroad national security laws, and Thailand makes arbitrary use of the lese majeste law and the Computer Crimes Act.
On Cambodia, Human Rights Watch urged Obama to openly challenge Prime Minister Hun Sen's increasingly authoritarian practices, in which he and other ruling party officials use violence, threats, and the country's notoriously corrupt judiciary to silence and imprison opposition party members, journalists, land rights activists, and other government critics.
Human Rights Watch also called on Obama to urge Vietnam, which will assume the chair of ASEAN in 2010, to set an example by improving its human rights practices. The government could start by releasing the hundreds of peaceful government critics, independent church activists, bloggers, and democracy advocates imprisoned in violation of international law on groundless national security charges for expressing peaceful dissent.
Human Rights Watch also noted that in Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines, and Thailand, security forces continue to commit serious abuses without fear of punishment. Despite assurances from leaders that they intend to bring the perpetrators to justice, abusive officials are not being prosecuted successfully. Past violators go unpunished, while those implicated in abuses remain in the security forces and may even be promoted.
In Thailand, military and police officers known to have been involved in abuses during the 2003 "War on Drugs" and counterinsurgency operations have been promoted rather than punished. In Indonesia, human rights violators continue to be promoted within the Indonesian special forces branch, Kopassus, and the masterminds behind the 2001 murder of the human rights advocate Munir bin Thalib remain free.
Human Rights Watch urged Obama to make a firm commitment that US agencies will review information about units and individual members of security forces participating in US-funded programs to ensure that none have been implicated in human rights violations, particularly torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings. Obama should also consider conditioning a greater amount of the US's security aid on progress in prosecuting those abuses.
ASEAN members have ratified a charter that commits member states to protect human rights, but the Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, introduced at the 15th ASEAN Summit in October, is weak. Several of the commissioners lack independence from their governments, and the commission's mandate is largely limited to allowing members to promote human rights, rather than protecting them.
"Obama should let ASEAN know that the regional grouping can be a formidable force for human rights," Pearson said. "But this means the new ASEAN human rights commission should have the power to protect people from abuses, not just pay lip service to human rights."