(New York) -- Australia should make human rights a priority in developing closer ties with Southeast Asian countries, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Australia’s new foreign minister, Bob Carr. On a recent trip to Cambodia, Singapore, and Vietnam, Carr focused on the importance of Southeast Asian countries as friends and trading partners, but said little about the rights of people in the region.

“Trade alone is not enough for the people of Southeast Asia who are being denied their basic freedoms,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “As a longstanding successful democracy, Australia is uniquely poised to talk frankly with the region’s leaders about addressing specific human rights concerns.”

The letter discusses human rights issues in Burma, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam where pressure from Australia could advance human rights protections.

Australia should be doing more to protect and promote the rights of people in Southeast Asia fleeing persecution, Human Rights Watch said. On a regional level, Australia has tried to raise standards and cooperation to counter people-smuggling through the Bali Process. However, continued emphasis on punitive crackdowns on people-smuggling, without a corresponding regional framework in place to protect refugees and asylum seekers, could exacerbate the harm to people who are fleeing persecution.

Instead Australia should encourage member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Australia should also use its leadership to ensure that the Bali Process addresses humane treatment of migrants, ensures that asylum seekers can access asylum processing systems, and respects the principle of non-refoulement – not returning refugees to places where their lives or freedoms could be threatened.

“Efforts to counter people-smuggling won’t be solved by simply paying countries to police waters better,” Pearson said. “All ASEAN countries should first agree to treat asylum seekers humanely, in line with international standards, and commit to not returning them to countries where they face persecution.”

In its letter, Human Rights Watch also raised the lack of accountability for crimes committed by state security forces – including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture – in many of the countries where Australia trains and assists security forces. Human Rights Watch urged the Australian government to systematically vet the human rights records of security force personnel and units being considered for training and to make this vetting procedure public.

“Training security forces is only effective if accompanied by measures to hold human rights abusers accountable,” Pearson said. “A transparent vetting procedure would ensure that prestigious training programs aren't wasted on abusive units with no interest in respecting rights.”