The Principle of Non-Interference and the Question of Human Rights Violation: The Case of the Rohingya Minority


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The Principle of Non-Interference and the Question of Human Rights Violation: The Case of the Rohingya Minority
Abdullahi Ayoade Ahmad — Department of International Relations School of Law and International Relations University Sultan Zainal Abidin, Malaysia.

The formation of ASEAN was witnessed by five founding member states promising full cooperation on security and other areas. Within three decades of its establishment, majority of states in the region have joined ASEAN except East Timor. Although the treaty underlines several areas of cooperation, it restrains states from interfering in the domestic affairs of its members. This clause has strictly been observed by all ASEAN states in their cooperation. This traditional norm has affected the Rohingyas, an ethnic Muslim minority in Myanmar, who have been subjected to tyrannous treatment at the hands of Burmese allegedly supported by the national government. As a result, neighbouring states, in particular Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia are receiving thousands of refugees from Myanmar, whilst their willingness to engage in resolving the crisis is jeopardised by virtue of non-interference in the internal affairs of other state. Therefore, no strong message has been conveyed to the Myanmar government, while neighbouring states are forced to accommodate thousands of Rohingya refugees. This paper investigates contributing factors that led to the current plight of the Rohingya ethnic minority, the effects of border-crossing movement, and the ASEAN principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of member states. The research concludes by recommending solutions to the crisis and suggesting factors that can shape ASEAN to stand as a true regional organisation.

The Bangkok declaration of 1967 created ASEAN as a regional organisation among five funder nations: Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippine, and Singapore. A major focus in the ASEAN charter is the principle of non-interference and respect for territorial integrity as well as the sovereignty of member states as conditions for ASEAN cooperation. This principle allows member states to manage their relations and embark on the organisation’s objectives through consultation (Mushawarah) and consensus (Mufakat. The principle has helped the organisation to adequately manage their relations during the Cold War. One should remember that the founding leaders were amid the nation-building project from the post-colonial periods when ASEAN was formed. In this context, the principle of non-interference has facilitated peace allowing complete concentrate on nation-building (Noel, 2014).

Human rights protection in ASEAN is yet to yield significant and remarkable returns due to various unresolved human rights violations. Such issues include the plight of the Rohingya minority ethnic group in Myanmar and human trafficking involving syndicates in Laos PDR, Myanmar and Thailand. In addition, the kidnapping and murder of human rights activists such as Munir Said Thalib in Indonesia, Sombath Somphone in Lao PDR and Somchai Neelaphaichit in Thailand have also raised public attention at the lack of progress in human rights protection across the ASEAN region (The Huffington Post, 2014). These issues fall under the context of domestic or national issues that are not to be interfered by member states.

Despite the non-interference principle which must be observed by the ASEAN, the ASEAN Charter further encouraged member states to comply with the principles of protecting human rights. As a result, ASEAN took the initiative to establish the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), which aims at strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights among member states to demonstrate its concern for human rights in the region and beyond. Subsequently, some member states such as Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand have further established National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) showing commitment for a better human rights protection at the national level. This development raised question on the role of AICHR in the region, and how to execute human rights protection in accordance with the national and regional requests without being considered interfering in one another’s domestic affairs. Whenever there is conflict between the two principles, the principle of non-interference will prevail over the human rights principle (Mohd, 2015).

Legal Status of the Rohingya — The Myanmar government denies the Rohingya citizenship. As a result, the vast majority of them have no legal documentation. In other words, they are making them stateless. The citizenship law of 1948 excludes Rohingya, while the new law introduced by the military junta (a citizenship law in 1982) strictly stripped the Rohingya of access to full citizenship.

Up until now, the majority of the Rohingya remain temporary residents with temporary identification cards in Myanmar, known as white cards which stated being issued in the 1990s. The white cards confer limited rights and have no legal status as citizens. Although in 2014, the government held a UN-backed national census whereby the Muslim minority group was allowed to self-identify as Rohingya, but upon Buddhist nationalists threatening to boycott the census, the regime made a U-turn and decided that the Rohingya could only register if they identified themselves as Bengali.

Subsequently, the Rohingyas right to vote in a 2015 constitutional referendum was denied through the cancellation of the temporary ID cards in February 2015. Muslim minorities continue to consolidate under one Rohingya identity, while the government introduced several policy restrictions such as on marriage, family planning, employment, education, religious choice, and freedom of movement that have institutionalised systemic discrimination against the ethnic group. The United Nations calls the Rohingya one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Nowadays, many Rohingya have turned to smugglers to find their way out of Myanmar to escape persecution. The below chart reflects the estimation of more than eighty-eight thousand migrants that have travelled by sea from the Bay of Bengal since January 2014.


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