Events & News


Contesting Human Rights – The EU model and ASEAN’s response

Mr Jamie Stacey, Visiting Researcher at EU Centre in Singapore

9 April 2014
CIT Auditorium, Level 2, Computer Centre, NUS [Directions]




The Association of Southeast-Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union (EU) has a longstanding partnership, at first largely economics-driven,  today certainly political. Over the last two decades the issue of human rights has been one of constant division, as well as opportunity, particularly for the EU to portray itself as the ‘model’ community and ‘guardian of human rights’. While ASEAN never rejected human rights per se, it has creatively re-interpreted the ‘EU standard’ of human rights and community in its journey towards an ASEAN Community by 2015. By shifting analytical focus away from the concept of ‘norms’- now rigid and embedded in western ideals- this presentation will turn to language, in particular, coercive language and the ability of actors to resist and re-interpret. By studying key ‘phrases-in-dispute’, from ‘Universalism’ to ‘Asian Values’, this thesis will consider how each actor presents its own version of a legitimate ‘reality’ of a human rights community, and the tactics they employ to ‘trap’ (or ‘force’) the other to adapt and submit to their view. So is the EU the foremost example of a regional human rights community?

Jamie D. Stacey, PhD candidate at Swansea University and current visiting researcher  at the EU Centre in Singapore will address the question over ASEAN’s “human rights” interpretation and  suggest that the EU can only ever be considered as a ‘distant moral point of orientation’. ASEAN has developed a specialised vocabulary with which to ‘re-define’ the human rights community. Whilst both regions are now entwined in the human rights narrative, both have struggled for their own alternative, legitimate interpretation. Contestation has been inevitable, and both communities are learning from it.

Mr Stacey’s presentation slides can be found in the downloads section above.

Seminar Report (by Devi Shree Malarvanan) – [print​]

Mr. Jamie Stacey asserted that our discussions of ASEAN, EU and their relationships had so far been defined by norms. This presents some limitations even as it introduces some sort of a hierarchy in international relations. In order to counter these limitations, Mr Stacey proposed a thesis that would look at the power of language and discourse and look at the different narratives on human rights coming out of the contestation between the EU and ASEAN.

ASEAN was placed on the international relations map in part due to the emergence of the constructivist school of thought that place emphasis on ideas and norms. In his thesis, he is attempting to move on from the idea of norms and delve into the usage of language by international actors such as ASEAN. ASEAN, notably, does not simply absorb norms from the EU. On the contrary, it has a system of interpretation and adaptation; this is consequential for the manner in which it understands human rights and issues pertaining to it, and this in turn demonstrates three important points. The theoretical point to be made is that language demonstrates power and it is something actors can use to contest and define reality. On a more analytical note, it is noteworthy that there can be more than one legitimate alternative to a community of human rights i.e. multiple versions of a human rights community are possible. The empirical point, then, is that ASEAN human rights community is not simply an imitation of the EU human rights community but it is fairly unique.

Since the “Identity Turn” in international relations – it marked a shift from military and economic power to identity and relational matters-ASEAN has been seen to have recognizable influence in Southeast Asia in a manner similar to the way the EU has influence in Europe. However, in the face of challenges such as the Asian Financial Crisis, there was, to some degree, a loss of confidence in the idea of ASEAN and there was pressure for a different approach. EU piped in with strong criticisms of ASEAN and the ASEAN way; there were also claims that ASEAN’s norms in themselves were not correct.

Simultaneously, there was growing interest in the idea of a normative power Europe and analysis on EU’s diffusion of these norms. One of such debates included the idea that the EU norms were naturally correct and attractive and therefore actors around the world have taken up these norms. However, these claims were not without limitations even as they portrayed norms as being independent of the reality. In reality norms do not independently shape the actor but actors define norms. At the same time, issues of an EU bias also surfaced.

In constructivism there is recognition that while the agent cannot change the structural aspects it still retains control over how it can change reality. Language is a tool used to serve that end; language and narratives permit one to shape and develop what reality entails. This is useful in understanding how ASEAN uses micro elements of language to contest what is conventionally understood as human rights while the EU continues to assert the validity of its own definition of human rights as being most natural.

A pertinent model used to understand such representation consists of studying the narratives by looking at phrases in dispute, the linkages and tactics used to conjure certain images and bring about acceptance of a dominant narrative or tolerance of another narrative.  Mr Stacey, then, proceeded to look at the case study of EU-ASEAN relations. Formal relations have been established between both parties since the 1970s and were then primarily economics driven.  In the 1990s, however, in a post-Cold War climate, there was a breakdown in tolerance and human rights issues re-emerged.

On one hand there was ASEAN which believed in non-intervention and in the ASEAN way and on the other there was EU that considered both domestic and international human rights to be intrinsic to its identity. This conflict was manifested in the form of two narratives- the narration of EU’s guardianship versus the narration of ASEAN’s exceptionalism. The phrases in dispute were ‘universalism’ on EU’s part and ‘Asian values’ on ASEAN’s part. The former presented individual and liberal democracy as being important and critiqued the ‘Asian Values’ as merely a form of defence of authoritarian regimes. The EU also constantly drew attention to a new universal standard of morality and appealed to the UN Declaration and the UN as a “moral source”.  Posited against this narrative, ASEAN was critical of universalism on the grounds that the EU ignored the needs of the developing world. It also asserted the importance of ‘socio-economic’ rights and community values that it claimed the EU failed to recognize and harped on the need for independence from Europe to avoid neo-colonialism.

Following this, both parties sought to launch their campaigns against the other’s narrative. For one, the EU focussed on de-legitimising Asian values by illuminating how the 1997/1998 crisis showed the weaknesses of the Asian values. It also portrayed itself as a friend of ASEAN; one who is pushing for human rights reforms in ASEAN only to help it remain purposeful in the post-Cold War world. ASEAN, in turn, stressed its right to development. It placed heavy emphasis on things such as sustainable development, the need to narrow the development gap, and poverty reductions. These essentially appeal to the EU’s rhetoric on development. ASEAN also supplemented this argument with its right to peace. Mr Stacey presented a series of speeches and texts that provide evidence of the respective narratives.

On a final note, Mr Stacey asserted that it is not necessary for one to agree with another’s version of human rights. As such, both EU and ASEAN can envision competing versions of human rights and both could essentially be legitimate in their own rights. There is also no conclusive definition of what a regional human rights community. This might then implied that the EU does not have a strong case for why ASEAN should model its human rights community after the EU’s.

During the question and answer session, several guests in the audience pointed out the great degree of heterogeneity in both EU and ASEAN and how this might influence the analysis. The EU has a tendency to impose its concept of human rights on ASEAN when even within the EU there is no homogenous understanding of what human rights. Similarly, within ASEAN not everybody expresses the same reservations towards the universalism of human rights and ASEAN has, to some degree, accepted the EU’s narrative on universal human rights. Other interesting points raised include the hegemony of the English language as a limitation to the understanding of human rights, and how meaning and identities are locked in one’s specific languages.