Australia warned against ‘dancing with dictators’ at Asean summit in Sydney

Ns news Online DeskNs news Online Desk: Australia is not a member of Asean, nor is it planning to be, but this weekend’s Asean summit in Sydney is a significant step in binding Australia closer to its regional neighbors through trade and increased counter-terrorism cooperation.

Despite the possible diplomatic benefits, Australia has been warned against “dancing with dictators” at this weekend’s summit, and urged by rights groups to raise the issue of human rights abuses across the region, not just focus on trade and counter-terrorism.The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is a group of 10 mainland and archipelago nations across the region: Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Laos.

Headquartered in Jakarta, Asean’s mission is to promote and accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development across the region, particularly through liberalizing trade and working towards the distant goal of a common regional currency. The organization is also seen as a counterweight to the growing economic, military and strategic influence of China. Tensions are especially acute at present over Beijing’s unilateral claim to the South China Sea.

While not a member of Asean, Australia is part of the larger East Asia Summit (which also includes China), and has sought in recent years to bind itself more closely to regional intergovernmental architecture. Australia’s 2017 foreign policy white paper committed it to pursuing shared interests in the region, and to demonstrating “our elevated commitment to Asean and our enduring ties with the countries of south-east Asia”.

Unlike the European Union, to which a democratic system of government is a requisite for membership, Asean has the harder job of pulling together a disparate group of countries, ranging from quasi-military regimes, dictatorships and communist countries, to one of the world’s few remaining absolute monarchies. It is known for its “Asean Way” (the organization even has a song about this) of negotiation emphasizing consensus and conciliation, and the avoidance of direct conflict.

But this consultative approach, alongside a policy of “non-intervention” in the affairs of member states, is often criticized as being toothless in addressing human rights abuses and egregious legal breaches by members. These are, despite public pressure, often left entirely unaddressed by the organization.Every Asean leader, with the exception of the Philippines president, Rodrigo Duterte, will be in Sydney for the Australia-led summit.

The focus of this weekend’s summit is geared heavily towards increasing trade and business links, as well as combating the regional threat of terrorism.But much of the action will be away from the carefully-staged photo opportunities, set-pieces speeches, and heavily-managed press conferences.

Protests are planned against the presence of the Cambodian prime minister, Hun Sen, whose abuses of power – including violent crackdowns on protestors, jailing political opponents, widespread corruption and media crackdowns – have escalated in recent months.

Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge cadre who has ruled Cambodia for more than 30 years, promised personal retribution should he be insulted by demonstrators in Australia: “I will follow you all the way to your doorstep and beat you right there … I can use violence against you.”

There will also be protests held condemning Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, for her perceived silence over the continued persecution of the Rohingya ethnic and religious minority in that country. Special rapporteur Yanghee Lee told the UN human rights council this week the atrocities against the Rohingya Muslim minority “bear the hallmarks of genocide”.

The council heard evidence that the elderly, people with disabilities and young children had been burned alive in their homes; that the military were perpetrating brutal gang rapes; and there had been targeted killing of children and babies. In response, council members in the US said it was “appalled by the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya” while the UK told the council the “human rights violations, including murder, torture and sexual violence, are appalling”.

The Australian government, however, was far more circumspect, saying only it “recognized” the “complex challenges” faced by Myanmar “as it seeks to consolidate democratic reforms and to achieve peace and reconciliation”Daniel Webb from the Human Rights Law Center said: “Time and time again we see our government getting all mealy-mouthed about global humanitarian emergencies.

“Victims of cruelty and injustice all over the world desperately need governments like ours to be part of the UN’s principled spine, not a corrosive influence gnawing away at the very foundations of human rights with hollow words and unprincipled actions.” Elaine Pearson, Australian director of Human Rights Watch, said Australia had the chance this weekend to make human rights a central and public focus of the Asean gathering.

“Australia’s failure to publicly raise human rights concerns at the summit would not only provide a propaganda coup to Asean’s most abusive leaders, it will embolden all the region’s leaders contemplating major crackdowns, jailing journalists or dismantling democratic institutions.” An HRW briefing paper raises human rights concerns in eight Asean countries, including Cambodia and Myanmar, and the crimes against humanity committed by the Philippines government in its “war on drugs”.

“Shutting one’s eyes and hoping that closer trade and security ties will somehow magically transform abusive governments into rights-respecting ones doesn’t work,” Pearson said. “The Asean summit shouldn’t just be an opportunity to dance with dictators, but a chance to publicly press them over horrific human rights abuses across the region.”

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