06 November 2014
Human rights in Asia

Human rights in Asia

How can Asia achieve more effective protection of human rights, asks Anthony De Bondt, a summer student at Tokyo's Sophia University in 2014.

How can Asia achieve more effective protection of human rights, asks Anthony De Bondt, a summer student at Tokyo's Sophia University in 2014.

It is by now widely recognized that Asia is catching up the West in terms of economic performance as well as economic development. The UN’s latest statistics show how Asia (taken together with the Pacific islands) has almost quadrupled its GDP from 1990. This increase in economic output has also trickled down to the lowest echelons of Asian societies as income poverty rates have decreased.

Is this evolution sufficient to say Asia is making enough progress in its development for it to become a developed region? The answer is quite obviously going to be negative. A number of issues can be raised at this point. One could for instance think of the poor sanition conditions in a number of Asian countries, or the fact that the gap between the rich and poor is growing. Furthermore, one could look into the UN Human Development Index and see how some of the big Asian states such as Pakistan and Afghanistan are situated in the group of ‘low human development’ states.

The variable I want to discuss in this paper, however, is yet another dimension of development, i.e. political development. More in particular, I will look at human rights. Political development has various components such as democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech and press, and human rights. Of course, all are important. Yet it is difficult to measure how Asia scores on this variables. On a sidenote, even though I write about Asia as a whole, huge internal differences exist of course between Asian countries on any of the components of development. Any evaluation should therefore take account of this fact and be careful not to generalise.

Nevertheless, I choose not to present an in-depth analysis of one or more Asian countries but to remain on a more general level as I raise the question whether Asian countries should seek membership of the Council of Europe or create a similar body?

Doing so might not only be beneficial for its political development, it might also increase their role as a responsible actor in the international arena.

European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms

Founded in the immediate aftermath of WWII, the notion of peace was made very clear by the founding fathers of the Council of Europe (CoE) already in its preamble: ‘Convinced that the pursuit of peace based upon justice and international co-operation is vital for the preservation of human society and civilisation…’.

The former European leaders also bore in mind that the newly established Europe could only be preserved from new divisions and conflicts by ensuring the respect for the dignity of all humans. It is in this light that in 1949 the CoE and more in particular its Parliamentary Assembly, approved the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR) (Sepúlveda et al., 2004).

The Human Rights listed in this convention substantially overlaps with those in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There is however the significant difference that those states which have signed the ECHR can be taken to court. Indeed, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), set up in 1959 at Strasbourg, can make judgments against states and has done so in numerous cases. Most of these cases deal with violation of article 6 of the Convention, the right to a fair trial.

According to some, the influence of the Convention is sensible and no state can fully insulate itself from the scope of the Convention.

What exists in Asia?

In short, Asia has got two commissions working on Human Rights. First, there is the Asian Human Rights Commission, which is an independent, non-governmental organisation that tries to promote human rights in Asia.

While this commission may deliver excellent work in the sense of promoting and raising awareness of human rights, this body has no actual power and can easily be denied by states. The second commission is the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, inaugurated only in 2009. It operates as a consultative body to ASEAN and acts on consensus of its members. It has developed and adopted an ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, but this received criticism from the UN and not much later also from NGOs.

Not only does this declaration apply only to the ten Member States, we can also expect this commission to be rather toothless since its decision-making mechanism is based on inter-governmentalism. One can easily understand why member state X shall not be addressed by the others since they themselves can be in country X’s position any other time in the future. To be sure, it would be like turkeys voting for Christmas.

Up to date, and in spite of the efforts that should be welcomed, there appears to be a vacuum in Asia when it comes to the effective protection of human rights. This has major consequences for its people. Let us take the case of land grabbing for instance. If a state is at liberty to do as it pleases without citizens being able to go to Court and have the right to a fair trial, one cannot say that state is developed. Of course, it makes a huge difference to someone if his state’s economic growth pulls him (just) over the poverty line, but all of this can be undone by a simple swipe of pen by a (local) government official, by which this person loses (against a small compensation) the land he owned for many years and where he had built his house upon.


In order for Asia to progress in its development an effective protection of human rights must be guaranteed in the near future. How can this be achieved?

Option one is based on individualism in the sense that Asian states will not act as a block but rather on their own. They could request membership of the Council of Europe and thus the ECHR. This may seem far-fetched at first sight (why for instance would an Asian country be member of the Council of Europe?). However, ‘Asian’ countries like Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia are already member states. If these countries can become member, then why not some of their neighboring states?

What I am saying is not that this is an evident step for Asian countries, but it could mean a milestone in their history, by showing their commitment to human rights. However, a further expansion of the CoE eastwards is anything but a matter of course. The latest enlargement after the end of the Cold War has caused a tremendous increase in workload for the Court. After the fall of the Soviet Union, all former communist countries except Belarus joined the Council of Europe, with Montenegro being the last one that has entered in 2006.

In a short period of time, the Court had gone from covering 23 countries to 47. Up to date, it can receive applications from more than 800 million people. The Court was not ready for this rush of applications and had to introduce protocols 11 (which made applying easier and virtually cost free) and 14 to cope with it, this had mixed results. In short, the Court suffers from a crisis of success and has up to date not yet found a remedy even though suggestions exist. Therefore, option one is unlike to unfold.

Option two sees Asian countries as co-operative states that understand that only a collective approach can improve the current situation as to human rights. In this scenario states will work together and establish a supranational body that is in charge of the effective protection of human rights in Asia. Why is this transfer of compentency to a higher level needed? Because one single Member state will never create a court that can judge that same member state! Only by collectively giving up part of their sovereignty in this domain, a court could be independent and credible and thus adherence would become more attractive to other states.

A third option exists also, namely to maintain the status quo. This equals the lack of necessary steps to ensure citizens protection agains human rights violations. Of course, the work of NGOs and others in the field are to be applauded, since at least they raise awareness around the issue. However, without option one or two, this will be of little help to the citizens. In this scenario I do take into account a possible incremental improvement of the situation. Nevertheless, these minor ameliorations are insufficient.

Where does this leave us?

I have started this paper by outlining the major economic developments of Asia and its limited development in other areas. One of these limitations is to be found in the protection of human rights. If Asia truly wants to develop and if Asian states ultimately want to become developed states than the backlog in this field should be redressed. This would render them more credible in the international arena and could also be beneficial for their (sustainable) economies since political decisions will be more supported by public opinion and Asian people will have better opportunities to develop themselves (and in turn contribute to the economy).

As explained earlier, most Asian economies are catching up with the West, with some being even bigger than (almost) any other state in the world. Perhaps it is the case that exactly their economic power puts them in the position to neglect the effective protection of human rights? A country like China for example is of massive importance to many of its trade partners. Most of them need China more than vice versa. They are therefore unlikely to produce real pressure on China to enforce human rights. Economic might creates independence. Big economic powers do not need to be told by others what to do. Small economies on the other hand do often listen. Very often because they rely on trade agreements with large economies whose governments can for instance demand domestic reforms.

By way of this paper it is a daunting task to answer the question in the title ‘How much progress has Asia made in its “development”?’ I did not rely on statistical data on human right violations over a long period of time, which would have given me an idea about Asia’s performance in this field. Instead, the reflection on the possibilities for Asia to look west and take over whatever may seem useful and applicable to its situation (which is undeniably dramatically different from Europe’s state of play), stays on the surface and does not allow for making hard conclusions on Asia’s progress. Nevertheless, it touches upon the usefulness of a better protection of human rights and discusses three possible scenarios for Asia.
Tags: asia, human rights, democracy, rule of law, council of Europe, Asian human rights commission

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