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The Relevance of Rights in Southeast Asia

Catherine Renshaw
University of Sydney

Andrew McLeod
University of Oxford


Panel Abstract

The recent flurry of human rights institution-building in Southeast Asia perplexes observers. Southeast Asia is a region renowned for its aversion to ‘legalization’, its resistance to international human rights law, its adherence to principles of sovereignty, non-interference in the political affairs of member states and dedication to the ‘ASEAN way’ of decision-making by consensus. Historically, these things have underpinned what many regard as the limitations of Southeast Asian regionalism, manifest in the absence of deep integration and the persistence of bilateralism. Yet the establishment of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, the creation of the ASEAN Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children and the signing of ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, would all seem to signal a regional turn towards classical liberal institutionalism.

This panel interrogates this apparent turn. In particular, it asks the following questions. Do the structural shortcomings of ASEAN’s new institutions suggest continuing ambivalence on the part of member states about deepening regional integration? How plausible is ‘democracy’ as a lode star for the new ASEAN, given the region’s political diversity? What does the form and character of ASEAN’s new institutions tell us about the death, or otherwise, of the ‘Asian values’ debate that marked human rights discourse in the 1990’s? Our approach to examining these questions is informed by the disciplines of law, sociology and political science. The presenters on this panel are from academia, civil society and government. Diverse (and conflicting) perspectives will be offered on the reach (and limitations) of the new Southeast Asian regionalism in the field of human rights.


Paper 1: Between the Scylla of Relativism and the Charybdis of Univeralism

Catherine Renshaw
University of Sydney

This paper critiques recent rights developments in Southeast Asia in the context of unresolved philosophical problems about the foundation, nature and value of human rights. It considers the response of Southeast Asian states to these problems and the response of Southeast Asian states to the pervasiveness of the global rights discourse.


Paper 2: The View from Inside: being an ASEAN Human Rights Commissioner

Rafendi Djamin
ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights

This paper will provide an overview of the internal dynamics that have marked Asia’s first human rights commission, discussing the institutional and political challenges to effecting change in Southeast Asia.


Paper 3: The rise of civil society in Southeast Asia

Yuyun Wahyuningrum
ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism

This paper examines the role of civil society organisations in the creation of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights and engagement between civil society and the Commission in relation to the drafting of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration.


Paper 4: The Rights of Migrant Workers in Indonesia

Maria Pakpahan
University of Edinburgh and Gadjah Mada University – Indonesia 

At present, there is still no adequate legal framework for the protection of the rights of Indonesian domestic workers and migrant domestic workers. Political will to push for a national law to protect the rights of domestic workers does not exist.  Problems concerning the violation of the rights of these workers are most commonly addressed through a ‘supply and demand’ framework.  This paper considers the adequacy of such a framework, given the growing phenomenon of migrant work, the increasing incidence of abuse by employers, and the growing demands for action by trade unions, the media and networks of NGOs.  This paper analyses the adequacy of existing efforts to address the problems associated with migrant work and considers the reasons why there has been resistance to these efforts. Finally, using a feminist ontology that locates the body as an arena of struggle, this paper considers the nature of the rights claims of domestic workers in the context of a changing Southeast Asia and prospects for the successful realisation of domestic workers rights.