It is Humanitarian Intervention, Not Interference

I take the view that ASEAN’s non-interference principle can be reviewed in the context of regional concerns about human rights, human trafficking and security.Times have have changed. There is no harm done to review its applicability in keeping with regional and international developments.

But to my mind, there is no doubt about its continued relevance in intra-ASEAN relations and international relations. The principle is also embodied in the United Nations Charter. There are times like the present Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugee crisis that affect the littoral states of Thailand. Malaysia and Indonesia when the need arises for quick collective action to stamp out the flow of refugees and rescue those stranded at sea facing death from starvation and dehydration .

Both Myanmar and Bangladesh are responsible for precipitating this humanitarian crisis and they have a duty to deal with it. As they have not, regional and international intervention to tackle serious human rights abuses can be justified.

The non-intervention principle can be suspended but that does not invalidate its value as a guiding principle governing relations among nation states. ASEAN must look at mechanisms for rapid action in times of human tragedy.

ASEAN holds dear to the principle of non-interference which is enshrined in the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (SEATAC). The purpose of the Treaty is to promote perpetual peace, everlasting amity and co-operation among the people of Southeast Asia which would contribute to their strength, solidarity, and closer relationship. In their relations with one another, ASEAN leaders are guided by the following fundamental principles:

  • a. mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all nations,

  • b. the right of every State to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion,

  • c. non-interference in the internal affairs of one another,

  • d. settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful means,

  • e. renunciation of the threat or use of force, and

  • f. effective co-operation among themselves.

SEATAC is also the document which countries like the United States, China and others are required to become signatories before they can be dialogue partners in the ASEAN Regional Forum. ASEAN leaders in the 1970s thought (they were right) that this principle was fundamental to the preservation of peace and stability of Southeast Asia, which was a victim of big power rivalry during the period of the Cold War, and US military intervention in Vietnam.

Human rights abuses as in Myanmar have raised questions about the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states. Some analysts have argued that ASEAN needs to rethink about this principle. But for one I am of the view that there is a strong case to ensure that non-interference continues to be the principle guiding relations between members, and with other states. But exceptions can be made for humanitarian intervention.

With regard to the Rohingya boat people tragedy, it is not a question of intervention or interference for ASEAN. Member states must meet to discuss what must be done before the lives of Rohingyas are lost at sea. To do that, ASEAN must create first create mechanisms to deal with the humanitarian crisis promptly. That includes the creation of a Rapid Deployment Force of Naval, Police and Immigration personnel to undertake search and rescue operations and deal with syndicates engaged in human trafficking.

At present, the problem is left in the hands of littoral states like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand while Myanmar, the perpetrator, is allowed to pursue ethnic cleaning. Surely, the military junta must be held to account for allowing Buddhist monks to commit wanton acts of violence against a minority community with a view to exterminating them. Second, on the spirit of ASEAN cooperation, Myanmar must stop the flow of refugees and provide food and shelter and a safe haven for those who remain and others who will be repatriated.

This will give time for a lasting political solution to be found regarding the status of the Rohingyas in their homeland. Third, the United Nations and ASEAN diplomats led by Malaysia as the 2015 ASEAN chair, and others like China, India, the European Union and the US can nudge along the process towards national reconciliation. This can be frustrating and time consuming for diplomats.

Forcing Myanmar out of ASEAN is not an option, at least for now. Instead, ASEAN and its dialogue partners in the ASEAN Regional Forum needs to engage in a consultative dialogue with the military junta to find a lasting solution to the Rohingya issue.