Author: Pierre Auzerau (Vienna Master of Human Rights)
As Covid-19 has revealed the vulnerability of the right to health, disaggregated data point to the
over-representation of ethnic minorities among those infected with the virus in several countries,
such as the United States and Great Britain. Among the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast
Asian Nations (ASEAN), no similar study has been conducted since the beginning of the pandemic.
In this region, the level of protection of minority rights was already considered insufficient before
Covid-19. While there is no internationally agreed definition of the term “ethnic minorities”,
ASEAN member states use this concept to refer to groups that are linguistically, ethnically, and
culturally different from the dominant group, living within the same borders. According to data
from the International Working Group on Indigenous Affairs, an international human rights
organisation, out of 650 million inhabitants, 100 million people identify themselves as ethnic
minorities in Southeast Asia. Despite this proportion, there are no mechanisms dedicated to the
protection of their human rights. In addition, ethnic minorities are not explicitly mentioned in texts
such as the ASEAN Charter (2008) or the Terms of Reference for the ASEAN Inter-Governmental
Commission on Human Rights (2009), despite their emphasis on diversity.
According to Covid-19 data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, ASEAN member states have
widely disparate incidence rates and number of cases of Covid-19, ranging from 39 in Laos to over
500,000 in Indonesia, as of 5 December 2020. Nevertheless, there is one similarity between these
10 nations: official figures confirm that Covid-19 data are not disaggregated by ethnic minority
groups. Yet, some countries recognise several ethnicities, such as Vietnam (54 ethnic groups) or
Malaysia, where ethnic fragmentation is one of the legacies of the colonial past. Thus, the data
collected on the various ethnic groups can be used to define affirmative action policies to reduce
inter-ethnic inequalities, which is the case in Malaysia.
In light of this information, one might wonder why ASEAN members do not coordinate to collect
data in order to identify whether millions of people, namely ethnic minorities, are more vulnerable.
Additionally, all ASEAN countries are committed to achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable
Development, whose SDG 17 requires the collection of “timely and reliable data disaggregated by
income, gender, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability, geographic location and other
characteristics relevant in national contexts”. Despite this commitment, ASEAN is based on noninterference with state sovereignty. In other words, South-East Asia emphasises cultural relativism
in order to promote “Asian values”, i.e. the reappraisal of the universality of human rights in the 2012 ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, which must be considered in the “regional and national
Infected by Covid-19, when the right to health sneezes, all human rights catch a cold
This lack of data is stalemating the human rights of ethnic minorities. Their right to health requires
disaggregated data to ensure access to care for vulnerable groups. Such information is vital to
improve healthcare by understanding the factors that make ethnic minorities more vulnerable to
Covid-19. Research highlights the pre-existing vulnerability of these communities, with an overrepresentation of people affected by HIV/AIDS, cancer and other cardiovascular diseases among
these populations. Conditions that can be factors of comorbidity, leading to severe forms of
Covid-19. In this context, the precarious situation that plagued ethnic minorities even before the
pandemic, is also an aggravating element, as data reveals that the poorest are disproportionately
succumbing to the virus. Numerous studies stress the significant proportion of ethnic groups among
the poorest in Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam, where they constituted “14 percent of the country’s
population but accounted for 73 percent of the poor in 2016”, according to the World Bank.
Furthermore, the right to health is a prism that encompasses other human rights, which reinforce the
need for disaggregated data. Border closures and various forms of lockdown imposed by ASEAN
member states impoverish ethnic minorities. The right to education can no longer be ensured, due to
the unattainability of new technologies, the impossibility of respecting physical distance, the right
to food for ethnic groups whose nutrition is based on hunting, or the right to self-determination
which is impeded, with some ethnic minorities no longer able to perform their rituals. All these
elements are part of the right to health, which recognises “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of
the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health”, in the International Covenant on
Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
In response to this degradation of minority rights, ASEAN has a key role to play. The publication of
guidelines to collect disaggregated data has to result from a regional cooperation, in order to prevent
the manipulation of such information for discriminatory purposes. In coordination with ASEAN
bodies, such as the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, Covid-19 response
plans should also include ethnic minorities, non-governmental organisations and private actors in
order to assess local needs. This coordination could contribute to the mainstreaming of the online
publication of Covid-19 data. In the longer term, this information would not only benefit ethnic
minorities, but also ASEAN countries to carry out the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Internship: Research Institute on Contemporary Southeast Asia
Based in Bangkok, IRASEC (Research Institute on Contemporary Southeast Asia) is one of the 27
French research institutes abroad, supported by the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs.
Scientists are working on a wide range of issues related to the human and social sciences, some of
which are published by the institute. Research, which covers the 10 ASEAN countries as well as
Timor-Leste, is based on five pillars: “political transitions”, “territorial issues and development”,
“social dynamics”, “ASEAN” and “society, environment and climate change”.One of the projects I have been working on is the annual publication, Southeast Asia: Assessment, Challenges and Perspectives, for which I am responsible for reviewing and proposing all kinds of data, such as prison overcrowding and other indicators related to human rights. At the same time, I produce short notes on current events in the 11 countries, so that social scientists can select 25 of them for the annual publication.Finally, one of the core tasks of this four-month internship is to gather information in order to write a paper, which will be reviewed by several social scientists and published on the IRASEC website.