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Asean Leaders Adopt Contentious Declaration of Rights

Residents who face eviction from their homes display signs with pictures of U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as they ask for help in protecting their rights during a protest ahead of their visit in Phnom Penh November 18.
Asean leaders on Sunday adopted a Declaration of Human Rights, hailing it as a step forward for the regional bloc that is consistent with international norms, despite protests from rights groups.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told reporters Sunday the declaration “is consistent with the universal declaration of human rights, as well as the Vienna human rights program of action.”

“It is something we now possess that we did not possess beforehand, so it’s an important benchmark for Asean to be kept honest in terms of its human rights obligations,” he said.

But the declaration has met with sharp criticism from local, regional and international rights groups, who say its language leaves too much room for interpretation and would allow authoritarian regimes to arbitrarily curb rights and freedoms.

“Our worst fears in this process have now come to pass,” Phil Robertson, the deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Rather than meeting international standards, this declaration lowers them by creating new loopholes and justifications that Asean member states can use to justify abusing the rights of their people.”

He called the declaration “flawed” and “with promises of faithful implementation from a regional grouping that has a history of promising much and doing little.”

For Cambodia, which has faced ongoing criticism of a sliding rights record, the declaration could become an “excuse shield” for Prime Minister Hun Sen, Robertson said, “whenever he is accused of being deficient in protecting human rights.