Working Group for ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism
Resolutions and Statements

Towards an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism --
A Concept Paper

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was founded in 1967 by the ASEAN Declaration (“Bangkok Declaration”). Its original members were Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines. Brunei joined in 1984. Vietnam became a member in 1995, while Laos and Myanmar/Burma became members in 1997. In 1998, Cambodia joined ASEAN.

The original aims and purposes of ASEAN were laid down in the 1967 Bangkok Declaration. They included the acceleration of economic growth, social progress, cultural development and the promotion of regional peace and stability, coupled with respect for justice and the rule of law. Intriguingly, the words “politics” and “human rights” did not appear in the text, even though the issues mentioned in the Bangkok Declaration, such as justice and law, would have some bearing on politics and human rights, and vice versa.

Ironically perhaps, until the 1990s, the success of ASEAN was mainly in the political field. Amidst the turmoil of the Vietnam war and the critical changes of government in Indochina in the wake of the withdrawal of United States troops from Vietnam in 1975, the original members of ASEAN could take comfort in the fact that their political systems survived and that they retained their independence against many odds, including ideological conflicts. In the 1980s, their joint political clout was highlighted by the fact that they succeeded in mobilising global support for the Cambodian government in exile under (the then) Prince Sihanouk as the legitimate representative of Cambodia in the United Nations General Assembly, as opposed to the Vietnam-backed regime which was physically in power in Cambodia.

The 1991 Cambodian Peace Accord, backed by the United Nations and guaranteed by ASEAN and other powers, paved the way for elections and return of peace in that country. It also helped to settle a longstanding obstacle to rapprochement between ASEAN and the three Indochina neighbours - Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. It opened the door for the latter trio to become members of ASEAN.

On another front, it should be noted that there has been much more progress on regional economic cooperation since the 1992 ASEAN Summit of Heads of Government in Singapore which introduced the idea of an ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA). Basically, AFTA sets dual tracks - fast track and ordinary track - for effective tariff cuts as Common Effective Preferential Tariffs, beginning in 1993, with the aim of lowering tariffs to 0-5% by 2003.

The Singapore Summit also initiated the idea of “functional cooperation”, such as in regard to children, women, anti-drug trafficking and environmental protection, which would broaden the avenues of ASEAN programming to encompass social and other concerns beyond politics and economics. These were further concretised in the 1995 Bangkok Summit which led to the agreement that ASEAN leaders would meet informally every year, in addition to the periodic formal summits. The first informal summit took place in Jakarta in 1996 and the second was convened in Kuala Lumpur at the end of 1997.