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Is the EU losing the fight for human rights in Asia?

The EU aims to become “more proactive, innovative and creative when it comes to human rights” in 2023, said the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell. But analysts warn that the EU is likely to struggle on the agenda in Southeast Asia, a region of growing geopolitical importance to Brussels. And this year is going to be a particularly tough year.

Cambodia and Thailand’s summer elections will be hotly contested and likely to be marred by fraud. Brussels has already imposed several sanctions on Cambodia over the deterioration of its democracy in recent years.

Myanmar military government The United States, which usurped power from a democratically elected government almost two years ago, also plans to hold elections this year, despite controlling parts of the country’s territory.

In communist Vietnam, the EU’s main trading partner in the region, the repressive Ministry of Public Security has assumed greater power after pro-Western President Nguyen Xuan Phuc “resigned” earlier this month. .

EU needs to ‘step up its game’

Timor-Leste was the only Southeast Asian country to be ranked “free” in Freedom House’s latest Freedom in World index. But East Timor has only poor relations with her EU.

In contrast, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar ranked in the bottom 50 out of 194 countries surveyed. Singapore and Malaysia were ranked 75th and 76th respectively.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the EU has all the tools it needs to effectively defend human rights in Southeast Asia, but it “needs to seriously step up its work.” there is,” he said.

“Too often, human rights issues get lost in the rush to rebuild and strengthen trade ties in a post-pandemic world,” Robertson said.

How strong is the EU’s influence in Southeast Asia?

In fact, Brussels has the Global Human Rights Sanctions System, a document similar to the Magnitsky Act that allows sanctions to be imposed on foreign officials.

We are currently initiating human rights dialogue with most governments in the region, and Malaysian and Thai representatives have entered into partnership and cooperation agreements with several governments that signed these agreements in Brussels last month.

The EU is also a major investor in the region and the top three trading partners of most states. More importantly, it is one of the largest importers of goods from Southeast Asia. This means they are threatened with trade sanctions that pressure local governments on human rights issues.

The problem, however, is that the EU needs to quickly build healthy relationships with these governments by promoting a “more positive, innovative and creative” human rights agenda. There is a risk of irritation.

Trade ties tear both sides apart

Brussels sees Southeast Asia as a way to build influence as it seeks to gain ground in the Indo-Pacific, where the U.S.-China conflict has prompted many nations to improve relations with “middle powers” like the EU. considered an important region of

But trade ties are a double-edged sword as the EU seeks to strengthen its economy in the face of a global slowdown.

The EU recently resumed negotiations with Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines, while free trade agreements have now been signed with Vietnam and Singapore. It is also expected to have a trade deal with Indonesia, the region’s largest economy, by the end of 2024.

Independent analyst and commentator Shadda Islam said: “I don’t think the EU will be tougher in its denunciations of human rights, given the need to woo Southeast Asian countries.”

Corruption scandal shakes EU confidence

Many people in Southeast Asia see the EU positively because of its focus on human rights, while others think the EU is pointing its finger at their own politics. They are reluctant to be.

Moreover, the EU appears to be considering its own explanation for human rights. “There is a heated debate about whether human rights are universal or culturally relative,” Borrell said in a January 7 blog.

During my visit to Brussels last month for the EU,ASEAN At the summit, Indonesian President Joko Widodo said, “If we want to build a good partnership… there are no longer people who dictate or assume their standards are better than others.” You shouldn’t.”

The EU also faces accusations of hypocrisy. The EU has warned Cambodia and others of corruption, but in recent months the European Parliament has been reeling from accusations that officials took bribes from Qatari sources.

In a speech ahead of a commemorative EU-ASEAN summit last month, Mr Borrell acknowledged that fighting corruption “is something that must be done here”.

“As Borrell recognizes, the EU has been increasingly criticized by other countries for its selective approach to ignoring human rights violations by its own governments,” said analyst Islam. .

Brussels needs to work behind the scenes

Human Rights Watch warned earlier this month that “civil society organizations, including those working to protect human rights, are under threat in Europe,” including advanced democracies such as France, Greece and Italy. issued. Written by Benjamin Ward, Deputy Director of the European and Central Asian Organization.

Shadda Islam believes the EU’s human rights agenda can be improved, but that would mean a change in tactics. That means “less megaphones, less performative diplomacy, less playing in NGO galleries,” she said.

And it is a “more serious effort, including behind-the-scenes assistance to assist human rights defenders at risk, more human rights training for police and judiciary, and protection of the rights of women and minorities.” It means to attach more importance to

Put another way, Borrell’s “more positive, innovative and creative” human rights agenda could mean the kind of work that is less likely to make the news.

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