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Human rights with Asian characteristics

MANILA (SE): The old boys’ club was on hand to welcome the Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, to his first Association of South East Asian (ASEAN) Summit in Vientiane, Laos, on September 5.

No doubt eager to make an impression, he pushed his big domestic barrow of the elimination of all drug-related creatures from the face of this earth among his newfound peers, encouraging them to adopt his methods and make a big push for a drug-free ASEAN region.

But Clarissa Militante, from De La Salle University in Manila, says in an article posted on UCAN that a statement issued on his departure from Davao City underscored “the importance of the rule of law and peaceful settlement of disputes,” as a key talking point during the summit.

However, what he did present was the tough guy image of a strongman leader, presumably to overshadow his reluctance to engage in the fundamental problems and political impasses that affect relations among ASEAN countries.

He spoke of his so-called war on drugs, which, along with a few popular procedural matters related to government documents he is using domestically as a smokescreen to cover up his inactivity in the areas of the economy that he has made big promises about.

Duterte’s view on human rights is not new. His approach was championed by the former prime minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohammad, and the long time prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, and continues to hold sway among most governments in the region today.

The tough, expletive-sprouting Mouth from the South seemed to fit in well with the regional organisation, as the majority of his Asian counterparts also view human rights as not being universal, but rather something relative to moveable criteria, always with an Asian way of getting around them.

The evolution of the principles of human rights and their practice within the Southeast Asian bloc has taken almost five decades, with the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights being formed only in 2009 and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration only being finally adopted in 2012.

Yet Militante points out that the intergovernmental body and the declaration have not guaranteed the application of human rights, nor the well-being of the people who should benefit from them in the prevailing environment of impunity in much of Asia.

The list of environmental and human rights advocates, indigenous people and political dissidents attacked, harassed, assaulted, imprisoned and worse, even murdered, in ASEAN countries continues to grow longer.

Militante points out that many of these human right violations are perceived or evidently seen as being state-sanctioned and/or perpetrated. The resolution of these cases has not seen the light of day.

The human rights watchdog, Focus on the Global South, has called attention to cases in the recent past, including those of Gloria Capitan, an anti-coal advocate from The Philippines; Kem Ley, a social and political analyst from Cambodia; and Melon Barcia, a peasant leader from The Philippines. All were felled by an assassin’s gun.

“Den Kamlae, a land rights activist from Thailand; Sombath Somphone, a development worker from Laos; and Jonas Burgos, a farmer and political activist from The Philippines. All forcibly disappeared,” a report from the group says.

The executive director of Focus on the Global South, Shalmali Guttal, says that these cases of human rights violations have become systemic, coming from a long history of violence in countries in the region.

This history has been witness to states causing the violence or promoting impunity.

Duterte has also criticised human rights, considering them to be an impediment to his war on drugs; for him, drug users have no rights, cannot be rehabilitated and thus deserve to die.

He declared in his State of the Nation Address on July 30 that he would not allow human rights to stand in the way of progress in the nation, hinting that The Philippines may be seeing the end of human rights and the beginning of an era of Duterte rights.

While official figures of those who have been killed since he became president-elect stand at around 2,500, unofficial counts have placed the figure at well over 4,000 since the purge of the poor under the guise of a war on drugs began.

The United Nations has criticised him over the killing of suspects without due process and in response he slammed the august body and threatened to pull The Philippines out of the worldwide organisation.

There is rising concern over how the government is conducting its purge and its failure to address criminality. It has mostly ignored the issue of enforced disappearances and the murder of indigenous peoples and rights defenders, as well as other human rights issues.

Another thing Duterte shares with ASEAN leaders, past and present, is his brand of leadership. He is not the first to posture as a nationalist-populist. He shares this badge of dishonour with others who have come before him.

Southeast Asia’s strongmen have been a distinct feature of the region’s post-colonial history and are not going to disappear soon, with the deeply entrenched military leadership in Thailand, the top-down style of the Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, Hun Sen in Cambodia, and a government in Laos that scoffs at the tiniest act of resistance or political dissent.

Militante says that the rule of law should resonate among ASEAN leaders, but what they do talk about is the rule of centralised, authoritarian power.

No wonder the ASEAN leaders welcomed the Philippine president with a vigorous handshake and heavy pat on the back, as he was inducted into the old boy network.

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