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Is the EU losing the fight for human rights in Asia?

January 24, 2023

Brussels is seeking to build influence in Southeast Asia. But the European Union's habit of criticizing governments over human rights doesn't go down too well in the region.

Two police officers detain Myanmar journalist at protest rally
Many troubled South Asian nations, including military-ruled Myanmar, are looking to hold elections this yearImage: Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

The EU aims to be "more proactive, innovative and creative when it comes to human rights" in 2023, according to its top diplomat Josep Borrell. However, analysts warn the EU is likely to struggle with this agenda in Southeast Asia, a region of growing geopolitical importance to Brussels. And this year is shaping up to be especially tough.

General elections in Cambodia and Thailand in the summer will be highly contested, and likely marred by irregularities. Brussels has already imposed some sanctions on Cambodia over its democratic deterioration in recent years.

Myanmar's military junta that wrestled power away from a democratically-elected government almost two years ago also plans to hold elections this year, even though it controls a fraction of the country's territory.

Rohingya refugees land in Indonesia

In communist-run Vietnam, the EU's main trading partner in the region, greater power is now in the hands of the oppressive public security ministry following the "resignation" of pro-Western President Nguyen Xuan Phuc earlier this month.

EU needs to 'step up its game'

East Timor was the only Southeast Asian country ranked "free" on Freedom House's latest Freedom in the World index. But the half-island nation only has scant relations with the EU.

In contrast, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar, Singapore and Malaysia were all in the bottom 50 of the 194 surveyed countries.

The EU has all the tools it needs to be an effective advocate for human rights in Southeast Asia, "but it needs to seriously step up its game," according to Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division.

"Too often, issues of human rights are getting buried in the rush to reestablish and strengthen trade ties in the post-pandemic world," Robertson said.

How strong is EU's influence in Southeast Asia?

Indeed, Brussels has its Global Human Rights Sanction Regime, a Magnitsky Act-like document that allows sanctioning officials in foreign countries.

It has now set up a dialogue on human rights with most of the governments in the region, and partnership and cooperation agreements with some — representatives of Malaysia and Thailand signed those pacts last month in Brussels.

The EU is also a key investor in the region and a top-three trading partner of most states. More importantly, it is one of the largest importers of goods from Southeast Asia, which means it has the threat of trade sanctions to pressure regional governments on human rights issues.

Indonesia: 'Everything we do has the potential to be criminalized'

The problem, however, is that by pushing a "more proactive, innovative and creative" human rights agenda, the EU risks frustrating those governments at a time when it needs to quickly develop healthy relations with them.

Trade ties cut both ways

Brussels sees Southeast Asia as a key region to build influence as it tries to gain ground in the Indo-Pacific region, where the rivalry between the US and China is pushing many countries to improve ties with "middle powers" like the EU.

But trade ties are a double-edged sword as the EU seeks to shore up its economy in the face of a global economic slowdown.

Free trade pacts have now been signed with Vietnam and Singapore, although the EU has recently renewed talks with Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines.  There are also hopes that a trade deal with Indonesia, the region's largest economy, will be done by the end of 2024.

"I don't expect the EU to become tougher in its denunciation of human rights given its need to woo Southeast Asian nations," said Shada Islam, a Brussels-based independent analyst and commentator.

Corruption scandal shakes EU credibility 

While many in Southeast Asia perceive the EU positively because of its focus on human rights, others are put off by what they consider the EU's finger-wagging over their domestic politics.

Moreover, the EU seems to be looking at its own narratives on human rights. Writing on his blog on January 7, foreign policy chief Borrell noted that there are "intense discussions over whether human rights are universal or culturally relative."

On his visit to Brussels last month for the EU-ASEAN Summit, Indonesian President Joko Widodo stated that "If we want to build a good partnership … there should no longer be anyone dictating and assuming that their standard is better than others."

The EU also faces accusations of hypocrisy. While the bloc admonishes the likes of Cambodia for corruption, the European Parliament has been rocked in recent months by accusations that its officials took bribes from Qatari sources.

Suspect in EU Qatargate graft scandal ready to talk

The fight against corruption "is something that has to be done at home, here," Borrell admitted in a speech last month ahead of the EU-ASEAN summit.

"Increasingly, as Borrell recognizes, the EU is called to task by other countries for neglecting human rights violations by its own governments and for its selective approach," said analyst Islam.

Brussels needs to work behind the scenes

Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch raised the alarm that "civil society organizations, including groups that work to protect human rights, are under growing threat in Europe," including in advanced democracies like France, Greece and Italy, according to an op-ed written by Benjamin Ward, the organization's deputy director for Europe and Central Asia.

Shada Islam reckons the EU's human rights agenda can improve, but that means changing tactics. It means "less megaphone and performative diplomacy, less playing to the NGO gallery," she said.

And it means "more serious attempts, including behind-the-scenes assistance, to help human rights advocates who are at risk, more human rights training for police and the judiciary and more emphasis on protecting the rights of women and minorities."

Put differently, Borrell's "more proactive, innovative and creative" human rights agenda could mean the kind of work that is not likely to make the news.

Edited by: Darko Janjevic