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10 May, 2017

As World Economic Forum meets in Cambodia, ASEAN MPs say human rights as important as economic growth

PHNOM PENH, 10 May 2017 (Press Release from ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights) – As senior decision-makers and stakeholders from the economic sector gather in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for the World Economic Forum on ASEAN starting today, regional parliamentarians urged participants, as well as all Southeast Asian leaders, to ensure that human rights concerns are integrated into all regional discussions of economic policies.

ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) welcomed the attention paid to Southeast Asia by global economic leaders, but argued that economic development should not come at the expense of human rights, which the collective of regional legislators warned are under threat region-wide.

“High levels of GDP growth might be impressive to investors, but it’s not clear that those benefits are being felt by all ASEAN citizens. We cannot forget that underlying inequalities and recurrent human rights violations are threatening the sustainability of economic gains,” said APHR Chairperson Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament.

“These inequalities and violations must be addressed with urgency through coordinated regional action, including by resolving deficiencies in the current business-centered approach to regional integration. ASEAN, member governments, the private sector, and international partners all need to step up, especially as ASEAN celebrates its 50th birthday this year. Regional integration must be truly people-centered.”

Throughout Southeast Asia, rapid economic development has had wide-ranging impacts on people’s livelihoods, including in many cases, damaging effects on human rights. Large-scale development and investment projects have resulted in thousands being forcibly evicted from their homes, with little or no recourse or due process, including in Cambodia, where this week’s Forum is taking place.

Many of these projects have also had detrimental impacts on the environment, as the region’s rich natural resources continue to be exploited with little restraint in the rush to grow the region economically. Those who speak out against these abuses are often targeted by the authorities, and land rights defenders have become some of the most vulnerable individuals in the region.

“We are witnessing the same thing happening in country after country: the drive for economic growth is all too often coming at the expense of human rights, as people are pushed off their land and then punished for speaking out about it,” said APHR Vice Chair Eva Sundari, a member of the House of Representatives of Indonesia.

“The exploitation of natural resources and land also frequently fails to acknowledge the many ethnic minorities and indigenous communities, whose livelihoods and culture are gradually being eroded in the name of development. We also need to acknowledge that, in many cases, legislation and its implementation have led to this agony. All political leaders, especially lawmakers, need to work harder to integrate human rights perspectives into legislation related to economic development.”

Labor rights have also been undermined, as the region has failed to put in place mechanisms to adequately protect workers, including migrant workers.

“Thousands of workers in Southeast Asia continue to work in deplorable conditions, for pay that often fails to meet their daily needs, while their legitimate right to organize is curtailed. ASEAN governments must have the political will to implement robust protections for workers, rather than siding with corporate actors instead of their own people,” Sundari said.

“MPs are crucial in this process, as they must be the oversight mechanism to make sure that labor rights and all human rights are being protected and fulfilled. Legislatures must mainstream human rights into all of their core functions, from legislation drafting to oversight to budgeting.”

Parliamentarians also raised concerns about free trade agreements, including the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), negotiations over which are currently being held in Manila. The negotiations aim to finalize the agreement between the ten ASEAN member states and six major regional trading partners. It is crucial for human rights to be placed at the center of these discussions and for negotiators to address concerns about the potential impacts of the deal on vulnerable populations, including the poor, APHR said. 

“RCEP negotiators must reject measures that undermine basic human rights, like the right to health and the right to an adequate standard of living. And they must ensure that sufficient labor rights protections exist so that companies can’t trample on the rights of workers,” Charles Santiago said.

 “In all cases, free trade agreements should be conditional on improving human rights region-wide; otherwise governments will continue to reap benefits without being held to account for systematically abusing their own citizens,” he added.

As ASEAN celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2017, parliamentarians urged member states to use platforms such as this week’s World Economic Forum to mainstream human rights into economic and development policies. MPs also called on governments to address persistent economic inequality, which they noted is one of a range of driving factors in atrocity crimes.

“ASEAN has achieved a lot in its first 50 years, but there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done, especially in terms of human rights. We need to have a serious discussion about how policies can work for all of ASEAN’s citizens, and not just the privileged few,” said Santiago.