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Human rights and the ASEAN-China FTA

Jakarta Post | Tue, 01/12/2010

Human rights and the ASEAN-China FTA

Iman Prihandono , Sydney

Entering year 2010 is marked by the entry into a free trade area agreement between ASEAN and China, also known as the ASEAN-China FTA. Little attention was given to the possible impact of this FTA agreement to fulfill human rights in Indonesia. Some rights include the right to health and a healthy environment, work and earn a decent livelihood, the access to natural resources, and other social, economic, and cultural rights.

The ASEAN-China FTA was first made in 2001 at the ASEAN-China Summit, which formulated a Framework on Economic Cooperation and established an ASEAN-China Free Trade Area. Under this framework, establishing a free trade area within 10 years time was agreed.

The ASEAN-China FTA is not the first trade liberalization agreement entered by Indonesia. Indonesia’s participation in regional and international trade agreements began with the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) in 1992, and followed its accession as a WTO member, as well as other agreements such as the ASEAN-Japanese FTA, the Korea-ASEAN FTA and a bilateral agreement with Japan, the Indonesia-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (IJ-EPA). These agreements could possibly be added by the EU-ASEAN FTA. The same possibility may also happen with the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand FTA, both agreements are now still in the negotiation process.

Critics said a number of trade agreements may potentially hinder the fulfillment of human rights.

IJ-EPA for example, was criticized for this agreement and is considered to facilitate the entry of hazardous toxic waste to Indonesia (The Jakarta Post, June 27, 2008).

Similarly, the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand FTA is considered to be expanding the opportunity of the ownership of land by foreigners. This is due to a national treatment provision, in which foreign companies should be treated the same as those obtained by domestic companies in terms of land ownership (, Feb. 4, 2009).

There have been many objections raised by industry associations and business on the implementation of this FTA, mainly because they are not ready yet to compete. Some analysts believe China’s international trade will only benefit more this FTA, this refers to Indonesia’s trade balance into deficit in China that has continued the past few years.

But this is more due to economic reasons. There area also fears the FTA will affect the fulfillment of human rights in Indonesia.

First, among the commodities that have to be liberalized are agriculture and fishery products. The majority of Indonesia’s population depended on these two sectors. Possible entry of agricultural and fishery products from China at a substantially lower price is a direct threat to the fulfillment of Indonesian farmers and fishermen rights to work and earn a decent livelihood. In fact, the effect of these cheaper agricultural and fisheries products from China has hit our farmers and fishermen even before this FTA enters into force (Antara, Dec. 30, 2009).

The same situation can occur in the manufacturing sector. The entry of cheap goods from China may make our key manufacturing industries unable to compete. Businesses may close or at least reduce production capacity. This situation will not only result in higher rates of employment termination, estimated to reached the figure of 7.5 million workers, but harder competition for jobs will lower the bargaining position of labor and workers. This situation will in turn make it too difficult for workers to obtain their basic rights, such as proper wages and compensation after termination.

Second, of course we remember when the Health Ministry issued a ban on the circulation of food products, beverages and cosmetics imported from China. This was because they proved to contain chemicals harmful to humans.

Likewise, it was also found that some elements in toy products from China were made from harmful chemicals. The lower cost of producing goods in China seems to have a direct relationship the poor health safety of these products. These experiences should become an important lesson for the government.

The government should then strengthen the health standards of a product. However, this measure alone is not enough, governments will also need to reinforce its control mechanisms, imposing effective fines for non-compliance and provide direct and appropriate compensation for victims.

Without these four measures in hand, it is suffice to say that the government may have ignored the rights of its citizens on healthy living and healthy environment.

Third, unlike the upcoming EU-ASEAN FTA, which in its “negotiating directive” clearly stating that the establishment of a free trade area between the EU and ASEAN will fully respect the implementation of “... international environmental and social agreements and standards”. Unfortunately, the same provision does not exist for the ASEAN-China FTA. The lack of guarantee in respecting environmental and social rights in this FTA may put the environment and society in a vulnerable position.

We certainly do not want the ASEAN-China FTA to open the way for the destruction of the environment and violations of social and cultural rights of the people by foreign investors.

The Indonesian government seems unlikely to back out of this agreement. Although it will feel a bit cramped, the human rights dress should be worn.

The writer is a lecturer and researcher at the Department of International Law, Faculty of Law, Airlangga University, Surabaya. He is currently undertaking PhD research in international law at the Macquarie Law School, Sydney, Australia.

 source: Jakarta Post