Democracy Lab Weekly Brief, December 3, 2012

Cristina Odone profiles Carne Ross, the crusader who's trying to save diplomacy from itself. And Willam Lloyd-George offers a portrait of Shwe Mann, the Burmese politician who's now being wooed by the White House despite his checkered past.

James Kirchick accuses Georgia's recently elected prime minister of threatening to derail the country's fledgling democracy.

Christian Caryl addresses the question of what makes a hero, and argues that Thein Sein, Burma's ex-general president, has what it takes.

Peter Murrell and Chuluunbat Narantuya explain how Mongolia's nomadic culture is helping the country evade the resource curse.

Ellen Bork warns the United States government against rushing prematurely into close cooperation with the Burmese military.

Alex Thurston analyzes the latest violent twist in the saga of Mauritania's troubled transition to democracy.

Endy Bayuni casts a skeptical eye on the human rights declaration recently passed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Jackee Batanda explains Uganda's involvement in the rising rebel movement in Congo -- and what Kampala can do to help end the crisis.

Juan Nagel takes a look at the latest mysterious disappearance of Venezuela's ailing president.

And here are this week's recommended reads:

The Atlantic Council's Egypt Source offers an excellent background on Egypt's constitutional crisis. Particularly useful are Nancy Messieh's close reading of the draft Egyptian constitution and Yussuf Auf's in-depth examination of the role of the Egyptian judiciary. Mohsin Khan provides much-needed coverage of a vital issue that has gone lost amid the political turmoil: The government's new economic plan.

Writing for NowLebanon, Hussein Ibish gives a scathing take on Egyptian President Morsi's efforts to accumulate power.

Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment makes a plea for reform of the U.S. democracy promotion establishment.

In a remarkable report for National Geographic, Jeff Bartholet tells the personal story behind a Tibetan's decision to set himself on fire as a protest against Chinese rule.

Tunisia Live offers excellent reporting on the continuing clashes between protestors and security forces at Siliana.

The International Crisis Group presents a must-read report on why Sudan desperately needs reforms if it is to avoid a new round of warfare with its own citizens and its neighbors.

Writing for CogitASIA (at the Center for Strategic and International Studies), Phuong Nguyen explains why Burma's important new laws on public assembly remain a work in progress.

Harvard's Calestous Juma shows how tribalism hampers the building of democratic institutions in Africa.

The International Republican Institute offers a useful backgrounder on recent elections in Somaliland. (You can find analyses of the results here and here.)

Photo by PHIL MOORE/AFP/Getty Images


Southeast Asian leaders put on a good face about human rights

When the leaders of the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed a document committing them to uphold and protect human rights, they did so with a straight face -- despite the skepticism and misgivings their own people had of their ability or intention to live up to their promise.

The ASEAN Human Rights Declaration was one of the most important documents to emerge from their summit in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh on November 18. Even President Barack Obama, who joined the leaders a day later for the East Asia Summit, acknowledged the act as progress for the region, according to an ASEAN diplomat.

The declaration stipulates all the basic rights and freedoms one would expect, but is also filled with many exit clauses allowing the governments freedom in interpretation according to their national laws. This essentially meant that the document was not worth the cost of the paper it was written on. Human rights groups were quick to give it the thumbs down as soon as the declaration was signed.

ASEAN can hardly claim to be a role model when it comes to observing human rights. The group's members are a mixed bag of diverse political systems with checkered human rights records: from an absolute monarchy (Brunei), a military junta (Burma), and repressive communist states (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos), to semi-democracies (Singapore and Malaysia), and functioning (though at times struggling) democracies (Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia).

The ASEAN leaders meeting in Phnom Penh did not see the irony of signing a declaration with such noble values at a high-profile gathering when their own people are skeptical about their intentions. But, they've had plenty of practice keeping a straight face: In 2007, they signed an ASEAN Charter that also contains "shared values and principles" that supposedly bind them as a group and forged a plan to become a single community in 2015. These values were again stipulated in the blueprint for the ASEAN Political and Security Community in 2009. However, even with their mixed human rights records, the only thing the ASEAN governments share is that they all violate these laudable values and principles (some worse than others).

With less than three years before the 2015 launching, the state of affairs makes one wonder what kind of community will emerge when the people in the ten ASEAN countries are still governed under diverse systems underpinned by entirely different political values and principles.

Unlike the European Union, ASEAN adopts very loose membership criteria: As long as you are within the Southeast Asia geography, you're welcome to join. Contrast this with the stringent requirements of basic democracy and freedom that former communist Eastern European countries had to fulfill before they were admitted to the European Union.

With the ASEAN Charter stipulating that decisions must be made with the consensus of all members, it is guaranteed that ASEAN will always go for the lowest common denominator on just about every issue, including on the issues of human rights, democracy, and basic freedoms. The original white paper for the ASEAN Charter was a very bold and visionary document but it was severely watered down by the time it was presented for signing by leaders in Singapore in 2007.

Perhaps not wanting to repeat the controversy that accompanied the Charter deliberation, the public was virtually excluded from the process of the drafting of the Human Rights Declaration, until the final phase.

To dismiss the declaration as entirely worthless, however, may be going overboard a little. It joins other documents with noble causes that ASEAN people and civil society organizations can always invoke, demanding that their government to live up to the spirit and letter of their commitments. On the other hand, given the exit clauses, the governments can simply ignore them.

Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images