The Bogor Declaration adopted at the APEC summit in 1994 says that the three pillars of APEC should be sustainable growth, equitable development and national stability. But can any of these goals be achieved without adequate protection of basic, internationally recognised human rights and worker rights? APEC aims to promote trade liberalisation in the region, and some governments including the US argue that this will, eventually, lead to political liberalisation and human rights improvements. But human rights progress is not a natural and inevitable consequence of increased trade and investment. Trade and investment may help create openings and be a long-term catalyst for change. On the other hand, increased trade may only strengthen authoritarian governments and make them more resistant to change. And even if APEC succeeds in keeping social issues off of its formal agenda, it is simply impossible to totally ignore human rights and labour rights concerns, in light of the problems and dilemmas faced by many APEC countriesand the growing pressures on those governments from their own people.
This past year, the demand from Asian citizens for basic civil liberties was greater than ever. If1988 was the year of the pro-democracy movement for Burma, 1992 for Thailand and 1993 for Cambodia, 1996 was a banner year for Indonesia and Taiwan. The presidential elections in Taiwan in March sharply refuted the Asian values argument that Asians care more about strong, efficient government than about popular participation. The Indonesian democracy movement developed a new cohesion with the formation of an independent election monitoring group and the demand for accountable leadership that led to mass support for Megawati Soekarnoputri as an alternative to President Suharto.
Some of the most influential, economically powerful Asian governments are working hard to fend off any and all attempts to link trade, development aid and investment with human rights. President Suharto of Indonesia, in anticipation of the World Trade Organisation’s ministerial conference in Singapore, recently told a meeting of ASEAN ministers that any discussion of “non-trade issues, that is, environmental issues and worker rights, would be politically risky, untimely and controversial. The ASEAN governments issued a statement endorsing his view. And increasingly since 1989, China has led the chorus of governments resisting human rights criticism as interference in their internal affairs. Premier Li Peng repeated this formula during his recent visit to Chile.
But it is also important to note that Suharto’s warning was echoed last month by the APEC Business Advisory Council, preparing for a huge APEC business forum this weekend. The Council issued a statement here in Manila opposing unilateral sanctions imposed by the US on China on human rights grounds. The chairman of the Business Council declared: There is a growing sentiment among members of the Business Advisory Council that unilateral sanctions by one APEC economy against another on a non-trade related issue is counter-productive to business. This bonding between governments and some private sector interests is not surprising, but it is very disappointing. It helps to blunt pressures on governments like China to improve human rights, and simply reinforces Beijing’s confidence that it can wield its economic clout to muzzle human rights criticism. (While President Clinton has de-linked trade and human rights, China clearly has not. Just look at the way China used the threat to limit business deals to get Germany to back off on Tibet when the parliament adopted a critical resolution this past summer.)
But other voices in the region are expressing a very different view on the role of trade. In Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi has urged governments such as Japan, not to resume bilateral aid suspended since 1988, until basic human rights are restored to the Burmese people. In addition, she has publicly supported the idea of international sanctions, such as a possible ban on new private investment by the US and other countries, in order to deny the Burmese military government both legitimacy and hard cash.
And though ASEAN still argues that economic engagement can will help bring about political change in Burma, doubts have been raised about constructive engagement in recent weeks, especially by the Philippine President Ramos and by the government of Thailand. There are indications that ASEAN may delay, on technical grounds, Burma’s bid to join the association due to the deteriorating human rights conditions and continuing political instability in Burma. The ASEAN ministers will meet in Jakarta on November 30, 1996, to discuss Burma’s membership, at the same time as the United Nations General Assembly is preparing to again debate Rangoon’s ongoing confrontation with the National League for Democracy and the international community.
In Indonesia, in the wake of the widespread crackdown on peaceful political and labour activists in July 1996, after security forces raided PDI headquarters, NGOs felt it was crucial for donor governments to send clear signals to Jakarta, by withholding a token five per cent of their contributions during the next annual aid cycle and other steps to exert pressure.
Meanwhile, the debate about a so-called Asian definition of human rights, which reached its peak at the Vienna UN human rights conference in 1993, may be on the verge of fading. NGOs and others throughout Asia are pushing governments to make fundamental civil and political rights, as well as the rights of migrant workers, minorities, indigenous people and women, an integral part of the efforts to promote social and economic development. The establishment of national human rights commissions in the Philippines, India and Indonesia has given legitimacy to the issue. And in July 1996, the Japanese foreign ministry co-hosted a high-profile conference on protection and promotion of human rights in the Asia- Pacific region. This was the second such annual conference where the idea of a regional regional human rights mechanism was discussed and is, at least, the beginning of a dialogue between governments and NGOs that might lead to the creation of a regional body.
Even within some of the more conservative South East Asian governments, there may not be a total consensus on the so-called Asian model of development. Malaysia’s deputy prime minister, Datuk Ibrahim, in a speech in Manila a few weeks after the crackdown in Jakarta, openly criticised authoritarian governments, declaring that Power personalised is power plundered from the people. Democracy is not a luxury that Asians cannot afford, as some would want us to believe. He urged Asians to build their political systems on ethical systems and moral uprightness and said rather bluntly :Dictatorship is not the answer. (I should add that he also attacked Western governments for being hypocritical and having double standards.)
But the Malaysian government’s behaviour a few weeks ago was hardly that of a democracy, when it took action to shut down a peaceful conference on East Timor in Kuala Lumpur, detaining local human rights activists and foreign journalists, and deporting participants from abroad. This incident also demonstrated how respect for fundamental rights including freedom of expression and assembly has sunk to the lowest common denominator within ASEAN, with Indonesia apparently setting the standard.
I want to emphasise that I do not believe that APEC is necessarily the best or most effective vehicle for raising human rights concerns, or for pressing APEC governments to adhere to their own laws and international human rights standards. But, if NGOs from throughout the APEC region can work together, we can find ways to creatively use the APEC process to push governments to address critical human rights and labour rights concerns in our own countries and regionally. Some recommendations we might consider:
In dialogue with the private sector, we’ve seen a growing recognition among US companies involved in Asia that American investors and producers have a stake in seeing the development of the rule of law, free information exchange, and more transparent, less corrupt and more accountable governments. For some, this translates into sourcing guidelines and codes of conducts, but others may want to go further. They might, for example, explore ways of cooperating with human rights, labour and environmental NGOs in the countries in which they do business. The APEC Business Advisory Council could help facilitate that kind of cooperation. Or, as the transfer of Hong Kong to Chinese rule approaches in July 1997, companies can play a useful role by encouraging Beijing to respect its commitments under the 1984 Joint Declaration, and protesting any crackdown on pro-democracy legislators or the media.
The World Bank and Asian Development Bank should take steps to move beyond a rhetorical commitment to good governance to actively use governance as a policy tool, pushing governments to reform labour practices and legal institutions to make them more responsive to the people whose interests development is supposed to serve.
Governments in the region should be encouraged to make greater use of international human rights mechanisms, such as the UN working groups and special rapporteurs, as well as agencies such as UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Bilateral forms of leverage are important, separate from or in conjunction with multilateral strategies. This includes the selective use of economic sanctions, linking trade privileges to worker rights or Japan’s Official Development Assistance Charter which stipulates human rights conditions as a guiding principle of Japan’s aid program. Also, governments that are members of APEC should not shy away from voicing criticism of human rights at international donor meetings or prominently raising human rights during bilateral meetings including the various bilateral discussions that will take place this weekend around the margins of the APEC leaders summit.
Ratification by the APEC governments of the major human rights and International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions should be a top priority, followed by measures to implement them by reforming domestic laws and practices This includes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. China, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have ratified neither. Few countries in the region have signed and ratified the Convention on the Rights of All Migrant Workers.
NGOs in developed countries should become active in exposing and criticising our own governments’ human rights violations In the US, this includes abusive immigration practices, discrimination and police brutality one of the most controversial and pervasive human rights problems in the US this year. In addition, though the US has ratified the ICCPP, it has taken no action recently towards signing or ratifying core ILO conventions or other important human rights treaties, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child or the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
At this conference, we might plan on how to counter growing government efforts to restrict access to the Internet, at the same time as increased access to the World Wide Web in many Asian countries has become an effective campaign tool for human rights and pro-democracy groups. The Chinese government has issued strict rules to regulate use of the Internet and has blocked subscriber access to at least one hundred sites on the Web; South Korean authorities have warned that the repressive National Security Law could be used to prevent circulation of material on North Korea; and in September, the member states of ASEAN announced an agreement to collectively regulate communication via the Internet. In Burma, a new law authorises imposition of a fifteen-year sentence for anyone importing, buying or using modems or fax machines without the military government’s permission.
* Since April 1990, Mike Jendrzejczyk has been the Washington Director of Human Rights/Asia, a private, independent human rights monitoring organisation, and a division of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. From 1988-1990, he wo