Back Seat for Rights?

Concerns arise that the U.S. in its fervor to check China's rising clout in East Asia will give less priority to human rights
By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
vietnam-305.jpg Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung (L) toasts with East Asian leaders in Hanoi Oct. 29.

After much wrangling, the United States has won a seat at the annual East Asian summit. But what will it bring to the table?

Will it continue, for example, to speak up on issues such as human rights in the region? And push the need for greater transparency and accountability? 

There are concerns that in its fervor to check China's rising economic and security clout in the region, the U.S. will give less priority to these traditional issues, particularly in Southeast Asia.

Such worries are understandable as Washington gets cozy with Southeast Asian nations seeking U.S cover against China's apparent bid to dominate the South China Sea.

With the Southeast Asian nations appearing to be on its side, the U.S. is also beefing up its longtime role as the pre-eminent military power in the region under this "I scratch your back, you scratch mine" arrangement.

Meanwhile, can human rights be allowed to deteriorate at the expense of security, some groups ask.

As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton left Washington for Hanoi for her first meeting with the current 16 powers at the East Asian Summit, host Vietnam rounded up bloggers, jailed labor activists and convicted Catholics protesting over land rights in a case that highlighted alleged police brutality and religious persecution.

"Vietnam is supposed to be our new best friend in Asia, but the United States cannot continue to pursue a relationship that advances Vietnam’s economic and security interests without seeing progress on human rights and the rule of law,” said Leonard Leo, head of the US Commission on international Religious Freedom.

Burma cast bigger shadow

In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen defiantly told U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to close the U.N.'s local human rights office and fire the country head.

It was "a direct assault" on the UN's human rights mandate, said Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, describing as "baseless" Phnom Penh's claim that the UN rights office was acting as a mouthpiece for the political opposition.
"If the U.N. human rights system is to have any meaningful effect around the world, then the U.N. should be able to have the offices there," said T. Kumar, Amnesty's director of advocacy.

But it is Burma that is casting the bigger shadow at the East Asia Summit.

Ignoring all appeals for "inclusive" elections, its ruling junta is proceeding with what many call "sham" polls on Nov. 7 aimed at legitimizing two decades of repressive military rule.

It is, in fact, a rebuff to President Barack Obama's engagement policy with the junta launched last November when State Department officials held the highest-level talks with the reclusive military regime in 14 years.

"It is also clear that the new U.S. approach toward Burma has not yet yielded any significant results or progress. As such, the United States should remain vigilant with regard to the post-election government’s attitudes toward democratization, national reconciliation, and human rights," said a task force report by the US-based Asia Society.

Still, the East Asian summit, where China is a key player, will be an enormous opportunity for the push the rights agenda while strengthening its security and economic links with the region.

Political freedom

"We are saddened that Asia remains the only place in the world where three iconic Nobel laureates—Aung San Suu Kyi, the Dalai Lama, and Liu Xiaobo—are either under house arrest, in prison, or in exile," Clinton said in a keynote address in Hawaii on Thursday enroute to the summit.

"As we deepen our engagement with partners with whom we disagree on these issues, we will continue to urge them to embrace reforms that would improve governance, protect human rights, and advance political freedoms," she said.

On the economic front too, the U.S. could push its initiative for a Pacific-wide free trade area at the summit, where China, Japan South Korea and ASEAN are already mulling plans for an East Asia wide free trade area.  

Washington gained entry into the East Asia Summit after much difficulty.

It had to first deal with opposition from some of the members of the group, which currently comprises the 10 states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China, Japan, India, Australia, South Korea and New Zealand.

Then, the U.S. had to appease ASEAN demands and accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which Washington did not favor for a quarter of a century.

Leaders of ASEAN, which  initiated the summit, formally agreed on Thursday to bring on board the U.S. and Russia into the 16-member grouping.

President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart are expected to attend the next summit in Jakarta in 2011.

Obama faces a formidable challenge of balancing U.S. interests and staying true to its ideals in Southeast Asia.

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