A group of parliamentarians across Southeast Asia have called on regional leaders to ensure that response to the coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath places human rights at its center.
The call was made ahead of the 36th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, which will be held online starting June 26.
In a statement, Malaysian parliamentarian Charles Santiago, chairman of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), said that while Southeast Asia was successful in containing the new coronavirus, the crisis had revealed “major weaknesses and inequalities in our governance system.”
In a letter sent to Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, this year’s ASEAN chairman, the APHR called for discussion of human rights amid the pandemic during the annual meeting.
“The region failed to protect those in the most vulnerable situations, in particular its migrant workers and refugees,” read the parliamentarian’s letter.
“It has also seen a surge in restrictions on freedom of expression and in hateful rhetoric against marginalized groups,” added the letter dated June 25.
The virtual ASEAN summit, which was originally set on April 14 but was postponed due to the pandemic, is expected to adopt 10 outcome documents including on food security and supply chain connectivity in the context of pandemic response, countering radicalization and violent extremism, and human resource development.
Malaysia’s Santiago said the gathering is an “opportunity” to show that the region can learn and grow together by “ensuring that policies are inclusive of all and promote a more just, sustainable, and equal society.”
APHR called on the regional leaders to move away from reliance on fossil fuels and coal, to provide access to basic services and social protection measures even to informal and migrant workers, to be gender responsive, and to speak out against discrimination of all kinds.
The regional parliamentarians also highlighted the issue of Rohingya refugees in their letter to the ASEAN leaders and called for a collective search and rescue operation for boats carrying refugees and arrange for their disembarkation.
“We cannot overstate the shame that falls upon us collectively when our governments choose to push people back to die at sea,” said Santiago.
“Addressing this situation will require that ASEAN fully uses its political leverage to ensure that Myanmar addresses the root causes of the human rights crisis in Rakhine State, ends all attacks on civilians, and restores the rights of the Rohingya,” said the group in the letter.
Since the pandemic broke in March, Vietnam has been hosting informal virtual meetings and raised initiatives in line with this year’s summit theme of “Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN.”
The regional leaders are expected to review current initiatives and explore new ways of cooperation to strengthen the region’s capacity to address the coronavirus pandemic.
With Vietnam as chair, the leaders are also expected to take stock of the progress of various community building initiatives under the three pillars of ASEAN — political-security, economic, and socio-cultural — and chart the way forward.
They will exchange views on international and regional issues, including maritime security developments.
A special session on “Women Empowerment in the Digital Age” will be held to mark the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action on the rights of women and gender equality.
ASEAN was founded in 1967 and now has 10 member countries — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.