Rohingyas, the most persecuted ethnic minority in the contemporary world has newly become the hot topic to be highly discussed in the international arena since 25 August 2017. Since then, more than half a million people of the ethnic minority have fled to Bangladesh.
The Myanmar military has been using the “scorched earth policy” against the Rohingya people. Hence, as the neighbouring country, Bangladesh has always been over flooded by the Rohingya influx. The United Nations (UN) has referred the cruelty against the Rohingya people as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” (Al-Jazeera). Driven out by violence from state forces, the displaced Rohingya are languishing at refugee camps of Bangladesh. The UN Secretary General António Guterres has described their situation as “catastrophic”.
The recent Rohingya crisis got a new magnitude when the big powers of the international system more or less openly entrusted their support to Myanmar government. Since then, so many aspects of the Rohingya crisis have been critically examined in the international political arena.
As so many aspects of the Rohingya crisis have already been discussed, the role of regional organization i.e. Association of the South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has also been pointed out. As Myanmar is a member country of the ASEAN, it is obvious to put the focus light on the role of ASEAN. It is also a fact that whenever an emergency situation or dispute arises within a region, the regional forum is presumed to be the arbitrator to resolve the dispute. Henceforth, the recent 31st ASEAN Summit held from 13 November to 14 November 2017 in Manila, Philippines was also expected to take some initiatives to end this decade long state-led genocide against the Rohingya people. However, the summit remained silent on the Rohingya issue which is one of the main human right issues affecting the ASEAN region. The international community seeks the intervention of ASEAN through The ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA Centre). The question is how far an organization can do to resolve matters within the boundary of its member states? Does the organization have that right to interfere at all?! Let us discuss the Rohingya crisis through the lens of ASEAN.
Non-Interference Principle of ASEAN:
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, was established on 8 August 1967 in Bangkok, Thailand, with the signing of the ASEAN Declaration (Bangkok Declaration) by the Founding Fathers of ASEAN, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Myanmar became the member of the ASEAN in 1997. According to the “Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia Indonesia” (24 February 1976), the ASEAN member countries have adopted some fundamental principles one of which was the principle of non-interference. Under the Article 2(c) of Chapter 1 (Purpose and Principles) it is stated that “Non-interference in the internal affairs of one another”. Thus, the non-interference principle of this kind of regional organization defines the scope of intervene of such organization.
The AHA Centre:
The ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA Centre) is an inter-governmental organisation which was established by the ten (10) ASEAN member states on 17 November 2011. The centre was constituted for any need of disaster management and quick response in the region. As Southeast Asia is one of the most disaster-prone regions of the world and is exposed to almost all types of natural hazards, including tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, typhoons, cyclones, droughts, landslides, and volcanic eruptions., this paved the way to establish such a centre. Thus, the main focal point of the centre is humanitarian rights rather than human rights. This is the strong point that hold backs ASEAN to intervene within a member state. However, the Asian organizations i.e. ASEAN, SAARC has failed to recognize the linkage between humanitarian rights and human rights.
Humanitarian assistance is much more charitable one which is applicable in an emergency situation whereas, human rights are known as the civil rights which are also unalienable rights. The International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and the Human Rights Law (HRL), however, are very complementary and adjacent. IHL and HRL are intimately related to the human person. IHL was formed from the symbiosis of two concepts, a legal one, and a moral one, inspired from a sense of humanity. To some extent, it can also be said that, regarding to certain of its aspects, International Humanitarian Law can be said to have fused or blended with Human Rights Law. So, through all its legal content, it tends to protect life and liberty of human beings, the “Common Goal” to HRL legislation.
How Non-Interference Constrains Asian Nations:
Asia, the home of circa number of 4.436 billion people, also the region of the giant super powers and economic powers as well. But the regional leaders of Asia seem to be reluctant to resolve the most acute running issues, i.e. the Kashmir Problem and the Rohingya Crisis. SAARC has failed to reach to a solution to the Kashmir Problem because of the non-interference principle of its charter. If SAARC intervenes, then, according to the charter it becomes non-compliance with the principles! According to the Article 2(3) of the charter,
“Such cooperation shall not be inconsistent with bilateral and multilateral obligations” which means discussion on contentious bilateral issues is omitted from the charter. Senior BJP leader Subramanian Swamy said that the stiff rule not to let discussion on contentious bilateral issues made SAARC “toothless” (The Economic Times, 2014). Hence, SAARC is impaired by the principle of non-interference and omission of bilateral contentious issues!
There is also double standard of the leaders regarding the role of the regional organization. For instance, when Aung San Suu Kyi was leading the fight for democracy against the Myanmar’s despotic military rulers during the 1990s, referring to the principle of ASEAN, she said, “policy of non-interference is just an excuse for not helping”! It is a fact that that now the State Counsellor of Myanmar wants the regional bloc to keep silent on the Rohingya genocide!
The Rohingya crisis is no longer a unilateral issue of Myanmar as a whole; neither is it a bilateral one between Bangladesh and Myanmar. The ASEAN member states are also affected by the crisis. The UN itself declared the crisis as clear meaning of ethnic cleansing. Establishing a centre for humanitarian assistance during the emergency of natural disaster can bring life to the affected people. But it is not rational to exclude state-led violence against a group of people! As mentioned above, IHL also tends to protect life and liberty of human beings, the common goal to HRL; it is the human rights that define the humanitarian rights or assistance. The leaders should also avoid contradictory standard when it comes the issue of human rights and humanity as well. The purpose of both the IHL and HRL is to serve the humanity. And by excluding a certain group of people whatever the group is, both the laws and humanitarian assistance centre will be ineffective and paralyzed to serve their main purpose.
The writer is aResearch Assistant (International Affairs), Bangladesh Institute of Law and International Affairs (BILIA)