Rights challenges in Southeast Asia
Political will plus conviction of all can achieve the goal of a free and just society
Recent developments in Myanmar have brought to the fore a growing movement in previously isolated countries in Southeast Asia. These countries have had no choice but to reach out and work together, either voluntarily or involuntarily, because of the emergence of new regional alliances, advances in telecommunications, biotechnology and transportation that has prompted unprecedented demographic shifts. Countries like the Philippines, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, which all have suffered from extreme poverty and illiteracy, are now starting to talk more openly and loudly about human rights protection, though their performance on this issue still fails to meet international expectations and the subject is still treated in a selective, if not politicized, manner. Most of these governments continue to hide behind the cloak of “non-interference in national affairs” when confronted with compliance to international laws. What continues to be generally lacking is the political will and conviction to apply governance based on a rights-based approach. Issues are tackled devoid of sincerity and accountability. They are handled as political gimmickry often at the expense of the basic entitlements of the people. “Active” citizens have not been developed. People seldom know their rights while education, an essential precondition for the implementation of human rights, continues to be wanting. A comprehensive and integrated approach is called for in the region to develop education and subsequently human rights. A similar effort is called for to bring about changes in attitudes. In this part of the world, states need to ensure domestic mechanisms and remedies are in place. Mechanisms should lay out the principles of consultation, non-discrimination and active participation of stakeholders. Democratic institutions should take root and perform their mandate free from political influence or “pay-offs.” Processes need to be people-centered, participatory and environmentally sound, and not only focused on economic growth. Priority must be given to poverty elimination, integration of women into the development process, self-reliance and self-determination of people and governments, and to the protection of the rights of vulnerable groups. Proposed plans of action and programs coming from these countries must be deliberated carefully and costed. Civil society and non-governmental organizations should also play a vital role in shaping and evolving a democracy. Their credibility lies in responsible and constructive engagements with grassroots movements There are many challenges today when it comes to incorporating human rights in the affairs of state. Basic to all of these is the knowledge that human rights are a responsibility of all, for all. Renato Mabunga is chairman of Human Rights Defenders, a lobbyist at the UN Human Rights Council and a regional educator on human rights.