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Human Rights, Deeper Ties Top U.S. Agenda in Asia-Pacific
March 22, 2013

President Obama met in Rangoon with Burma’s opposition leader and democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi during his visit — the first of any U.S. president — to the country in November 2012.

By Jane Morse
IIP Staff Writer
March 21, 2013

The Obama administration is striving for deeper ties with the Asia-Pacific region, but with an emphasis on strengthening democracies and protections for human rights, U.S. officials told senators March 21.

“Over the last four years, the U.S. government has made a deliberate, strategic effort to broaden and deepen our engagement in the region in what has come to be known as the ‘rebalance’ to the Asia-Pacific,” Joseph Yun, acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations’ Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

This “rebalance,” Yun said in prepared remarks, includes boosting economic growth and trade, deepening alliances, strengthening relationships with emerging powers, expanding good governance, and deterring conflicts. “And while the rebalance reflects the importance the U.S. government places on our strategic and economic engagement in the Asia-Pacific, the dimension that binds the entire strategy together is our support for advancing democracy and human rights,” he said.

“The Asia-Pacific region has shown the greatest progress in the world in achieving steady gains in political rights and civil liberties,” Yun said, citing strides made in Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Thailand and Taiwan.

“And perhaps the most striking example of all in recent history is Burma,” Yun said, “where positive developments on a range of concerns of the international community have allowed us to open a new chapter in bilateral relations.”

According to Daniel Baer, deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, “Burma’s budding democratic transition will succeed only if the country’s civil society is strong and can help drive it.”

“That’s why,” Baer said in his prepared remarks, “we continue to press the Burmese government to ensure that the political leaders recently released from Burmese prisons return to society with their full civil rights restored and with their academic and professional credentials recognized. These men and women will be critical building blocks of a new, robust civil society in Burma and we must support them.”

Baer lauded the Burmese government’s efforts to cooperate with civil society, opposition party representatives, and the new national human rights commission to work through remaining political prisoner cases. He also cited new laws in Burma that have led to the registration of more than 400 enterprise-level unions and a budding institution for dispute resolution, which the United States supports through grants to the International Labour Organization.

Baer added that it is crucial for Burma to ease its restrictive civil society law so nongovernmental agencies are able to operate freely and fundamental freedoms of assembly and association are “consistent with international best practices.”

Senator Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, chairman of the East Asia and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee, said that Burma — “long one of the region’s most authoritarian systems” — has made moves in the past two years toward greater political freedom. “Helping Burma have free and fair elections in 2015 will be a top U.S. government priority,” Cardin said.

Cardin said the United States will continue to work with regional organizations, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Pacific Islands Forum, to institute and strengthen reform throughout the region.

“ASEAN has taken first steps,” Cardin said, “towards recognizing the importance of protecting human rights with the foundation of the Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights and the 2012 ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. But these are just first steps,” he said. “We need to look at what these commitments are about, whether they need to be strengthened, and how we can make sure that there is a way to hold countries accountable to basic human rights.”

Yun said the United States has more work to do in engaging ASEAN in its “historic attempt” to address the importance of promoting and protecting human rights in Southeast Asia.

ASEAN announced the adoption of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration in November 2012, Yun said. But he added: “We are deeply concerned that many of the declaration’s principles and articles could weaken and erode universal rights and fundamental freedoms as contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

“We urge ASEAN, in consultation with civil society, to amend and strengthen its declaration to reflect a commitment to protect and advance fully the fundamental freedoms of its people and to bring the document in line with the standards embodied in the UDHR and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” Yun said.