An Agreement to Disagree: The ASEAN Human Rights Declaration and the Absence of Regional Identity in Southeast Asia

Mathew Davies

Abstract


ASEAN’s engagement with human rights culminated in the creation of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration in 2012. The Declaration is fascinating in three ways: Its institutional origins are surprising, it was agreed upon by states with very different positions on the role of human rights domestically, and it both contains commitments far in advance of some members and is at the same time dangerously regressive. The three leading frameworks that currently interrogate the Declaration fail to provide convincing insights into all three of those dimensions. To correct these shortcomings, this article applies the notion of an “incompletely theorized agreement” to the study of the Declaration, arguing that member states understand the Declaration in very different ways and agreed to it for similarly diverse reasons. Further, I argue that the Declaration neither articulates a shared regional identity relating to respect for human rights, nor can it be understood as marking an early point towards the creation of this identity. Instead, the current diversity of regional opinions on human rights and democracy is perceived as legitimate and will endure. The article concludes by considering whether this denudes the Declaration of value, arguing that its importance will vary: The more progressive the member state, the more important the Declaration will be in the future.

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