June 2nd, 2015

Rohingya issue: Asean has duty to act

By Vivienne Wee, Director, Research and Advocacy, Association of Women for Action and Research

refugeesWe agree with Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam that the humanitarian crisis facing the Rohingya is due to conditions that render them vulnerable to traffickers (“Shanmugam: Asean must address roots of Rohingya issue”; Sunday).

The Asean Human Rights Declaration states that “every person has an inherent right to life which shall be protected by law” and that “no person shall be held in servitude or slavery in any of its forms, or be subject to human smuggling or trafficking in persons” (Articles 1 and 13).

All Asean states, including Singapore, should protect the human rights they have espoused, especially when stateless, homeless refugees turn up on their doorstep, seeking their right to life and freedom from servitude or slavery.

Callous indifference sends a signal that nobody cares what happens to these people, and that they can be trafficked with impunity, even if they end up in mass graves.

As United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has said, although we need “a very clear addressing of the root causes of this issue, why people are fleeing”, the top priority now is saving the lives of those adrift at sea.

We are concerned that the contravention of the declaration by signatories means that all other articles can also be breached whenever governments choose.

Article 4 states: “The rights of women, children, the elderly, persons with disabilities, migrant workers, and vulnerable and marginalised groups are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Displaced women and girls are particularly at risk of violence and exploitation.

The rights of Rohingya women and children seem not to matter to some Asean member states. Certainly, the Rohingya are a vulnerable and marginalised people whose human rights are violated – they have been rendered without citizenship in their country of birth.

Ironically, ordinary citizens, such as fisherfolk in Aceh, better understand how to uphold human rights – by rescuing people so that they do not die. Sadly, they have been threatened by their government with revocation of fishing licences if they continue to rescue refugees.

Recent measures by some governments to rescue refugees may not adequately stem the crisis of credibility that has arisen for Asean, especially since these “rescues” reportedly allow traffickers to take victims off the boats.

If the human rights of the Rohingya can be dispensed with today, whose human rights can be violated tomorrow?

This letter was first published in the Straits Times Forum on 30 May 2015.

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