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Jihyeon Bae Examines How States Invoke the ASEAN Charter to Conceal Responsibilities in the Rohingya Crisis

Jihyeon Bae-Mack and Mayerfeld interviewing
Jihyeon Bae (right), 2021 recipient of the Peter Mack and Jamie Mayerfeld Fund during interview with human rights activist. (Name and face have been blurred out to protect identity of individual).

March 3, 2022

It is often presumed that international laws promote human rights and liberal norms. However, international laws are not preserved exclusively for liberal norms. Alarmingly, a growing number of authoritarian countries are codifying illiberal norms in the form of international laws.

The topic of authoritarian international laws (AIL), international laws that are largely comprising authoritarian leaders as drafters, merits further investigations since a rise of AIL buffers human rights advocacy activism in authoritarian countries. As much as human rights NGOs can leverage their voice by bringing up the United Nations Human Rights Charter, so can authoritarian regimes invoke the non-intervention principle in the ASEAN Charter. The award from the Peter Mack and Jamie Mayerfeld Fund allowed me to empirically explore whether and how AILs can be challenge for rights activists by conducting a semi-structured interview.

My research project focused on the invocation of the ASEAN Charter’s illiberal principles in the Rohingya crisis. After getting approval from the IRB, I conducted interviews with seven human rights activists in both Bangladesh and Myanmar and asked if they faced any difficulties due to governments’ emphasis on non-interference principle. Interviews were conducted anonymously for 30 to 40 minutes, and interviewees were selected from both local and international level human rights NGOs. Interviewees had diverse backgrounds and different years of experience in the field. Yet, they were all in charge of providing humanitarian assistance to refugees in Bangladesh.

By interview responses, I was able to identify a pattern between key principles enshrined in the ASEAN Charter and rhetorical pushback from authoritarian states. The main conflicting views between rights advocates and authoritarian states lies at how they view the necessity of external intervention when a neighboring country was committing a genocide. According to interviewee responses, ASEAN member states have continuously applied the principle of non-interference and justified their passive actions against the Myanmar government. Interviewees also shared their views that interventions against genocides are legitimate and necessary, on the contrary to states’ emphasis on sovereignty. Interview responses corroborated my hypothesis that the non-interference principle and the sovereignty principle in the ASEAN Charter serve as the legal bases that help state leaders shun away from any external criticism or interventions.

This research project calls for more attention from legal scholars and social scientists when autocrats draft international rules and when they endorse new (often illiberal) normative principles. Once codified, laws tend to have a self-reinforcing characteristic considering their authoritative traits. The project calls for more checking efforts in the field against repercussions made by illiberal institutions and norms, especially when there are less transparent channels in the authoritarian context. I am at the stage of finalizing a publishable research note style article, which is expected to contribute to the area of international norm studies and to share insights with human rights activists.