AFTINET calls for human rights, labour rights and environmental standards in Southeast Asia Strategy 2040

March 20, 2023: DFAT has called for submissions for the Government’s Southeast Asia strategy 2040.

Despite the long-term time frame of the strategy, there is no reference so far to inequality in the region or to human rights, labour rights or environmental standards.

The strategy will not take the form of a legally enforceable trade agreement, but is likely to be a series of Memoranda of Understanding to increase Australian trade and investment in the region. The strategy will include topics like supply chains, green economy/environment, agriculture and digital trade. These will sit alongside trade agreements like the Australia-ASEAN-NZ FTA and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

The AFTINET submission argues that the strategy should include the Government’s goals consisting of justice and equality, sharing the benefits of increased trade and investment, and the need to reduce carbon emissions.

The submission notes that seven of the ten ASEAN countries are also involved in the Indo-Pacific Economic Forum (IPEF). This is also not a traditional trade agreement. However, human rights, labour rights and environmental standards are included in the negotiating goals, even if it is not clear how they will be implemented.

The submission provides evidence of deficits in both commitments and implementation of human rights and labour rights in some ASEAN countries, and serious violations, including imprisonment and unlawful killings in Myanmar, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Indonesia (West Papua).

The submission recognises that ASEAN trading partners include developing countries and least developed countries and that they will require cooperation and support to implement these standards over time, including specific support from Australia’s Official Development Assistance programs.

These commitments should ultimately be incorporated into legally enforceable trade agreements with the same access to dispute settlement as other chapters in those agreements.