The creation of the ASEAN Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights marks a substantial step in the history of ASEAN, and an important move towards the recognition and enforcement of human rights. In this note, I’m less concerned with the substantive issues of human rights, but rather with – as the blog title suggests – the different ways in which we talk about rights.
The blog is far too long . . . but what I do here is use an earlier example, of Burma’s deferral of its chairing of ASEAN in 2005, to highlight differences in the ways in which both substance and politics of rights are addressed. I also use this example to highlight the dilemmas likely to be faced in maintaining a rights-oriented conversation between ASEAN nations and Western observers.
A couple of comments on the recent ASEAN developments will do to illustrate the preliminary issues – that is, the potential tension between “rights talk” and “rights enforcement”:
“. . . examines the ASEAN Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and whether it will be adequate and effective in responding to major human rights problems in the region. While the author argues that its establishment marks an important step in ASEAN’s history toward more people-focused action (not state-centric rhetoric), he notes that AICHR’s establishment does not yet demonstrate follow-through or the ability to collectively enforce its values.”
“Indonesia will push for the creation of a regional human rights body that will have the power to monitor and investigate rights abuses in ASEAN countries, the Foreign Ministry said Friday.
“We want the future rights body to be more than just an educational institution on human rights,” ministry spokesperson Teuku Faizasyah said. He added however that it was too early to talk about the kind of sanctions that will be imposed on countries that violate the rights of their citizens.”
“Even as foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are set to today approve the terms of reference for an ASEAN Human Rights Body, activists said the grouping must ensure that the body is not a mere ‘Talking Show’.”
On 26th July 2005, Myanmar announced, at the start of the 38th Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Ministerial Meeting in Vientiane, that it would give up its right to chair ASEAN in 2006. That role then passed to the Philippines following the alphabetical rotation of the role. The reason given to the meeting for this was that Myanmar wished to focus its full attention on the “ongoing reconciliation and democratisation process”
Responses within ASEAN indicated approval of that decision and a reaffirmation of the “ASEAN way” of avoiding confrontation. This decision was applauded as a recognition by Myanmar of the value placed on ASEAN unity. Also, as indicated by Mr George Yeo, Singapore’s Foreign Minister, it was “wise” for Myanmar to “decouple” its domestic politics from “the affairs of ASEAN”.
Two issues are suggested immediately by this development: first, the perceived importance of a common manner of conducting delicate conversations amongst the ASEAN partners; and second, a willingness, again amongst these partners, to separate the “internal” from the “international” in politics. While the issues of internal politics are not neglected – indeed, they are the reason for the delicacy of the conversations about Myanmar’s potential chairing role in ASEAN – the conventions of a dialogue process and of the whole ASEAN accord mean that the member nations maintain official silence on their internal political differences.
These two threads are inseparable: they form the warp and the weft of how dialogue is conducted between the ASEAN partners. My interest here is to comment briefly on the differences that have become apparent between this “ASEAN way” of conducting dialogue and the approach of the “West” in addressing the issues of human rights abuses and the failures of democratic processes in Myanmar. A common interest exists between those countries of the West that have directly addressed the need for change and democratisation, and those neighbouring ASEAN nations which would also wish to foster change and bring an end to the human rights abuses in Myanmar. There is, however, a significant gulf between the manner is which each grouping approaches the task. While there is a clear risk in painting these differences with too broad a cultural brush and in drawing conclusions about “Western” and “Asian” ways of doing international politics, there are significant and self-identified differences which begin to explain approaches to dialogue.
My concern here is to comment more on the process aspects of the relationships within ASEAN – effectively, the first of the threads mentioned above. The second thread – that of the agreement on the separation of internal and international politics – is a larger theme which both goes to the heart of the relatively recent political histories of the region and, in turn, shapes approaches to dialogues on democracy and rights. In brief, any discussion about the “Asian way” of doing politics needs to be set against a backdrop of the post-colonial rise and establishment of the nation state in South and South East Asia. It is a common theme in the analysis of political life in the region, and a response to external expectations as to progress on democratisation, that nations which have relatively recently arrived at independence – and 50 years is relatively recent – are, first, still in the process of creating indigenous forms of democracy; second, reluctant to subject that process to external scrutiny, especially if it appear to come from formerly colonial sources; and third, equally reluctant to partition or attenuate the integrity of statehood through conceding too much authority to superordinate structures – such as the EU nations have – or even to international conventions which demand compliance with external norms. This reticence, in turn, will of course reinforce the external view that the Asian way is an “obstacle” to democratisation and to the establishment of international norms of rights and freedoms. It may also confirm the suspicion that democracy’s apparently fragile hold in some parts of the region is as a result of the persistence of traditions of hierarchical and authoritarian rule.
What I set out to explore here is the difference in cultural styles of communication, set against this backdrop of political history, with a view to focussing attention on the gains that can be made in understanding those conventions of regional diplomacy without the easy temptations of contrasting “Asian” values with “universal” or “international” values
At the heart of the difference is the mode of conveying to Myanmar the expectations that progress be seen in the moves towards democracy. That the lack of progress was an issue for both ASEAN and the West is seen in the discomfort the ASEAN partners had in contemplating Myanmar’s entitlement to take the chair in 2006, and in the insistence on the part of the EU and the USA that substantial progress be made towards institutional and regime change as a condition of their participation in the ASEAN Regional Forum meetings – in the absence of which progress both the EU and the USA would decline to attend.
The question for both “sectors” is this: if you need or want to bring another into dialogue, especially in order to deal with either a troublesome aspect of the relationship or to seek a change in their conduct, what are the options? On the one hand, there is the option of coercion and threat: the imposition of sanctions, the prospect of more stringent economic and political pressure, the exclusion from further dialogue. On the other, there is a style more in the nature of invitation and the provision of opportunities to make changes of one’s own accord rather than under the threat of sanction.
In either case, the intention is to convey a message about the desirability of change, but the style of conveying the message is substantially different. There is a further communication dimension to this, which becomes especially apparent and important in the ASEAN context: messages, whether in the form of demands or invitations, involve both the intention of the speaker and the impact of that message on the recipient. While it might be a common intention of the Western and ASEAN nations to speed up progress towards democracy in Myanmar, the impact of the mode of conveying that intention – through sanctions, on the one hand, and “constructive engagement” on the other – is likely to be received very differently in Myanmar, and therefore likely to produce different results. Thus, as the brief news items reporting Myanmar’s decision suggested, Myanmar’s decision was more in response to ASEAN’s desire for “open dialogue” and its affirmation of the principle of mutual non-intervention in the internal affairs of member nations than it was (or was conceded to be) in response to the imposition of sanctions by the West.
Surrounding the decision by Myanmar to defer its taking of the ASEAN chair, there were two lines of international diplomacy. Within ASEAN there was the regularly reiterated preference for “quiet diplomacy” and the other essential strand of ASEAN, the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member nations. In the wider and Western diplomatic world, the path being taken was more that of the development and implementation of “measures” to pressure the Myanmar regime towards greater progress on democratisation. In both cases, the espoused aim of the measures was to bring the regime into more open dialogue on democratisation. In each case, the strategies adopted reflect the conventions – and broadly, the cultural styles – of engagement.
It is commonplace in commenting on conflict resolution to observe, both domestically and internationally, that a spectrum of tools and processes is increasingly available and utilised. Those tools range from the facilitative to the coercive, with a reliance on the promotion of common perceptions and purpose at one end of the scale to a reliance on the strength of either rules or of bare power to effect movement in the relationships between the parties. Whether we look at multiple sites of decision making and problem solving within the domestic context or the activities of diverse actors in multi-track international diplomacy, the picture is broadly the same: we are increasingly aware of the rich range of resources potentially available in the management, mitigation and prevention of conflict.
Add to this one further element: the choice of process, whether it is relatively informal or formal (or coercive) may reflect cultural and collective preferences for a style of decision making or conflict resolution. This topic had been treated widely in a burgeoning literature on culture and conflict resolution and there is no need to repeat that work here, expect to make this point: the decision by Myanmar can be seen as an important illustration of the impact of a mutually understood style of conveying messages within a broadly defined community of neighbours. Substantively, there will remain reservations about the effectiveness of progress towards institutional and political change; internationally, it is likely that the approach of ASEAN will be seen as ineffective, inefficient, and overly protective of a regime which, by common agreement, remains oppressive. There is also likely to be wide agreement on the preference that Myanmar should not take the chairing role of ASEAN. But there are clearly different ways of expressing that preference and providing reasons that Myanmar could, without appearing to have conceded too much, offer to defer its right to the chair.
There are two points to consider here. The first is that the dilemma reflected in the approaches to Myanmar is one of scope and style of argument. The approach broadly characterised as that of the West is one in which expectations about human rights are articulated in the language of international conventions and universal norms. The sanctions that attach to the failure to meet those norms are intended to reflect not only the disapprobrium of the imposing nations or regional organisations but also the universal imperatives of the norms. Indeed, it is the claimed universality of those norms that grounds the political and moral stance.
Typically, those sanctions are coupled with expectations about specific steps to be taken towards democratisation, including institutional, economic and structural changes. Thus, the approach is presented or at least perceived as a package of prescriptions, the satisfaction of which will lead to a re-inclusion in the international community but the failure of which will probably lead to an escalation of pressure.
While those norms of human rights can both legally and morally be regarded as having near-universal currency, not least because of widespread accession to the range of international instruments, there is a problem when they become the basis for pressure for internal changes – notwithstanding the expectations that nations will move towards compliance. The dilemma is one of the contradiction between the universal expectations of human rights norms – as a criterion for good governance and international acceptance – and the particular adhesion to sovereignty. This is the first of the problems underpinning the meanings attached to and read into messages such as those about human rights, democratisation, and the acceptability of Myanmar’s possible chairing of ASEAN.
The ‘older’ democracies – in which we can include the US – continue, of course, to adhere to the fundamental precepts of the inviolability of national democracy and to the realist stance of the primacy of states as international actors. That said, it is also increasingly the case that elements of that sovereignty have been conceded or modified, whether its though compliance with those international norms and a consequential modification of domestic law or through participation in collective enterprises such as transnational forms of governance like the EU or in the granting of wider powers to regional organisations such at the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE).
The ‘newer’, or emerging and transitional democracies, some of which make up the membership of the ASEAN grouping are, on the other hand, likely to adhere more strictly to the hard view of the inviolability of sovereignty. Various reasons can be advanced for this, including the idea that it is only the older and more established democracies that have the luxury of the softer view of their national sovereignty and – more cynically – the suspicion that few if any of these newer and emerging democracies could readily withstand the glare of too great a degree of international scrutiny of their compliance with universal norms.
Accordingly, the expectations of ‘democratisation’ are likely to be re-branded for ASEAN consumption as ‘dialogues on reconciliation’ (the language used by Myanmar). Equally, ASEAN nations invoke as a core argument for non-intervention and non-criticism the principle at the core of the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, in Chapter 1, Article 2, which reads, in part, that “the High Contracting Parties shall be guided by the following fundamental principles:
- Mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all nations;
- The right of every State to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion;
- Non-interference in the internal affairs of one another.”
What therefore creates a distinction in approaches to nations with which the international community does have common difficulties and with which most nations would welcome sincere dialogue on internal reforms is this difference of emphasis on either the primacy of universal norms or of sovereign inviolability. This is not to suggest that those nations – especially in ASEAN – which agree on the primacy of sovereignty do not also accept the value of human rights: these, after all, form part of the implicit message that ASEAN conveyed to Myanmar. But – and this leads to the second main point – the significance lies in the manner in which the message is conveyed.
The second point illustrated by the recent ASEAN events is this: while there are substantive differences of emphasis on universal rights norms or on inviolable sovereignty, there are also significant, sometimes more subtle differences in how the message is conveyed. The language of the Joint Communiqué of the 38th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Vientiane conveyed Myanmar’s decision to relinquish its turn to chair ASEAN with the appreciation that Myanmar “has shown its commitment to the well-being of ASEAN and its goal of advancing the interest of all Member Countries.” Equally, the stance taken by ASEAN in inviting Myanmar to join – at a time when the wider response internationally was one of isolation and exclusion – was that of encouraging “constructive engagement”. What is at stake here is less a matter of the substantive concerns over human rights which are largely shared by the ASEAN partners than a matter of method and style of communication. As indicated earlier, both the Western partners – principally the US and EU – and the ASEAN nations share a goal in bringing Myanmar into dialogue about and eventually changes in their human rights record and political institutions. The ASEAN nations however, both for reasons for Treaty obligations (as above) and culture, eschew the directness and prescriptiveness of sanctions and external pressure. And it is this indirectness which is seen in the language of the Communiqués in which no reference is made to matters internal to Myanmar’s governance, but is made rather to the consideration that Myanmar had shown to ASEAN in making the decision, reflecting a joint respect for the express provisions of the Treaty and – implicitly – for the expectations of shared diplomatic and cultural language.
What we have, then, is two broad styles of cultural language illustrated in this example. Broadly speaking, “Western” approaches, especially those of the US, tend to be prescriptive, universalist, and political; that is, they are couched and perceived as directives relating to the release of prisoners, the recognition of human rights, and the imperatives of structural change. There is also typically a tendency to link economic co-operation or aid with the satisfaction of certain standards of democratisation and openness. The expectation is that the recipient of such messages will concede to the weight of international pressure: the substantive results of meeting institutional and political norms are arrived at through compliance.
ASEAN/Asian approaches, on the other hand, tend to be elliptical, indirect, and non-prescriptive; they tend to be couched in broad terms, either aspirational or metaphorical; typically reinforcing values perceived to be common – such as “amity”, “being open” or “maintaining regional security”. The implications of this style, frequently identified in other aspects of regional negotiation and communication style, are that such broad statements, in not being prescriptive, permit the recipient to make the decision on the action to be taken, though it also understood that both parties know what needs to be done. Expectations, but not prescriptions, are conveyed. The recipient of the message is left with an invitation and with the choice; and, as responses to Myanmar’s decision indicated, compliance with those expectations will be met with collective approval.
In terms of research on cultural styles in communication and negotiation, what we see in the different approaches to Myanmar and its entitlement to take the chair of ASEAN reflects neatly reflects the distinctions drawn by Hall between “high context” and “low context” cultures. Low context cultures are typically characterised as industrialised, mobile, and individualistic and are settings in which there is a reduced level of shared assumptions and values – hence a low level of “context” on which to draw in communication. Communications therefore tend to be direct, and low in metaphor and inference: what you hear is, by and large, what you get.
High context cultures are, by contrast, traditional or modernising, still have strong collective or community ties and show a relatively higher – if not unmitigated – degree of collectivism. Communication in such world can draw on a high level of common assumptions and are thus characterised by inference, metaphor and a more elliptical style.
Using the same broad brush, the Western nations which have been instrumental in promoting sanctions as a means of persuading Myanmar to come to the table fall into the “low context” category. And the ASEAN neighbours – albeit to differing degrees and with variable commitments – fall into the “high context” category. It could also be said that ASEAN as an entity is a high context organisation and it enshrines in its founding documents the values of the “soft” approach to diplomacy, not only in the principles of non-intervention but also in the aspirational style of the language which can be seen in any of the ASEAN statements. The alternative to this agreed style of diplomacy would be the creation of a set of rules and explicit standards for political and democratic life in the region, non-compliance with which would be grounds for more forceful diplomatic action. This option is under consideration in the form of an “ASEAN Charter” with an Eminent Persons Group being given a mandate to examine practical considerations for inclusion in such a Charter. This is a step towards a binding Constitution for ASEAN. Until the completion of that process, however, the emphasis remains on the familiar diplomatic conventions of ASEAN.
Culture and diplomatic language thus currently come together well to illustrate the intentions and perceptions involved in relying on either sanctions or signals in conveying expectations. If what was intended by either approach was the avoidance of the embarrassment of Myanmar’s chairing ASEAN for the next year, this was achieved by the decision made by Myanmar. That decision leaves untouched, of course, the very real substantive issues of minimal progress towards democracy and the implementation of real human rights protections and no doubt Western observers would have preferred to see more conditions attached to both the deferral of the chairing role and the prospects that Myanmar would take that role in due course.
What may be important for both Western and ASEAN purposes, however, is the fact that “face” has been saved. First, it should be noted that part of Myanmar’s statement indicated a desire not to place ASEAN colleagues in a difficult position. Second, in deferring its entitlement to chair ASEAN, Myanmar was able to make – or be seen to make – its own decision. The West can read into this, if it likes, the efficacy of pressure; ASEAN will read this as indicative of the value of non-intervention. Third, Myanmar was also saved from an ASEAN decision to take the chairmanship away from them, which would have created an awkward precedent. And thus ASEAN was saved from being put in that position; and saved from the embarrassment of the EU’s avoidance of the meeting (though the US’s Secretary of State had already indicated that “her schedule” did not permit which can be read literally by the West and metaphorically by ASEAN: messages do not necessarily arrive bearing the same meaning as that with which they were sent!)
The “Asian” way, for all that it might have produced the “right” result in this case in relation to the chairmanship of ASEAN, is likely to be seen by the West as evasive and as failing to take a stand on international norms and rights. Equally, the Western way is likely to be seen as indicative of renewed US domination and a push for specific political systems or order; and reminiscent of colonial power.
The downside of the ASEAN way still needs to be considered in that it permits the continuation of political and human rights abuses in the name of the inviolability of internal politics and neatly shields all member nations, not just the most obviously recalcitrant, from regional or neighbourly criticism. Cynically this might be seen as part of a collective regional unwillingness to permit commentary on internal politics in the region’s “soft authoritarian” states, not all of which come out well in Amnesty reports.
That said, and without diminishing the enormity of human rights abuses that are well-documented, a procedural and diplomatic value remains in understanding the cultural dimensions evident in the approaches to such dilemmas, not least because of the accession of New Zealand (July 2005) and of Australia (December 2005) to the Treaty of Amity, which brought two nations from more of the “Western” side of the fence to the negotiation table, and with it a need to adjust to the ways of conveying expectations. For those familiar with negotiation in, for example, Japan and China, the experience is clear that the words typically convey a lot more than – and sometime other than – what is apparently said, which makes it all the more difficult for those who expect the words to convey the whole meaning and find it next to impossible to read meaning into what is not said.
There is another dimension to this discussion which also takes place in most nations where there are ongoing and sometimes difficult discussions between indigenous peoples and the state; or in those international settings where “culture” and “tradition” are used as a defence against the recognition of otherwise international norms. This can be linked to the present discussion to the extent that the “ASEAN way” is a comprehensive shield to cover and protect the diverse values and traditions of the Asian nations who make up the membership (and to which non-Asian nations are now acceding). To recognise that there is a substantial difference between the ways in which the “West” and “ASEAN” convey their expectations of other members of the international community is not to belittle the degree to which the both the assumptions of the universalism of norms and the integrity of culturally understood norms can preclude as much as they foster communications. But it is to affirm that – in keeping with the spectrum of dispute resolution options – that there are diverse ways of getting the message across.
To return to an opening point, both the West and ASEAN have – through sanctions and signals – sought to bring Myanmar into dialogue on human rights issues. That purpose continues though the immediate challenge of Myanmar’s formal entitlement to take the chair of ASEAN has been at least deferred. One lesson that can be taken from this episode relates to the field of international negotiation generally and it is that parallel negotiations, conducted according to differing norms, may take place, each reflecting the political and normative priorities of the negotiating, “message-sending” parties. There is a common purpose to these twin tracks of negotiation – adherence to human rights norms and visible progress towards democracy. Both tracks remain important, especially in terms of the stance that each message-sending party chooses to convey, not least to its own constituencies. But there is a difference in terms of what is expected of – or offered to – the “recipient” of the messages: compliance or a graceful exit. While those sending a message of the expectations of compliance might be less interested in offering such a graceful exit, both the conventions of international diplomacy and the more recent practices of “principled negotiation” would seem to suggest that the values espoused by the ASEAN way are not unfamiliar to the West: the values of constructive engagement and the exploration of options and inference, leaving parties the opportunities for commitment rather than mere compliance. At the very least, at the closing stages of such a negotiation, where there is a pressing need for a decision on the specifics of chairing ASEAN quite apart from the longer term imperatives of democratisation, there is an argument for the value of reliance on a “text” for the negotiation which reflects the agreed and shared norms of those most closely involved: Myanmar’s decision seemed to indicate that the message was received, even if its style was more elliptical and the time frame for substantive change more flexible than outside observers might have wished.
 “We have been informed by our colleague, Foreign Minister U Nyan Win of Myanmar that the Government of Myanmar had decided to relinquish its turn to be the Chair of ASEAN in 2006 because it would want to focus its attention on the ongoing national reconciliation and democratisation process. Our colleague from Myanmar has explained to us that 2006 will be a critical year and that the Government of Myanmar wants to give its full attention to the process. We would like to express our complete understanding of the decision by the Government of Myanmar. We also express our sincere appreciation to the Government of Myanmar for not allowing its national preoccupation to affect ASEAN’s solidarity and cohesiveness. The Government of Myanmar has shown its commitment to the well-being of ASEAN and its goal of advancing the interest of all Member Countries. We agreed that once Myanmar is ready to take its turn to be the ASEAN Chair, it can do so.”
Joint Communique of the 38th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting; Vientiane, 26 July 2005
 Straits Times, July 27th, p. 1
 “. . . deference . . .to domestic sensitivities of neighbours, also led to the emergence of unwritten rules of non-interference in and non-comment upon . . . sensitive subjects such as corruption, nepotism and political repression in neighbouring states – in the interest of stable regional relations.” Chin Kin Wah, “ASEAN: Domestic Sources of Regional Stability/Instability,” http://www.inpr.org.tw/publish/pdf/recent/event913.pdf; p.2
 See, for example, Wang Gungwu (ed) Nation Building: Five Southeast Asian Histories, ISEAS, Singapore, 2005
 Michael Fullilove: ‘any internationally acceptable candidate from Asia would have to demonstrate strong support for universal values and could hardly have been a proponent for the “Asian values” argument’; citing a “recent gathering” of Asian diplomats and UN officials, in “Angels and Dragons: Asia, the UN, Reform, and the Next Secretary-General,” Lowy Institute Issues Brief, July 2005; p. 15
 E. T. Hall, Beyond Culture, (New York, Anchor Books, 1976); and The Silent Language, (New York, Doubleday, 1959)