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Asean Rights Declaration Below Standard, Advocates Say

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, left, speaks with ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, Jakarta, Sept. 4, 2012.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, left, speaks with ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, Jakarta, Sept. 4, 2012.

Supporters of the declaration say it is necessary to help Asean states have a norm for human rights.

WASHINGTON DC - Asean leaders are hoping to adopt a declaration of human rights when they meet in Phnom Penh in November, but rights workers in Southeast Asia say the draft so far is insufficient and does little to advance the notion of human rights in the region.

Asean representatives say the declaration will provide a human rights standard for the 10 countries within the group. An Asean committee has been quietly worked on the declaration, which provides provisions that “must be considered in the regional and national context,” according to a draft obtained by VOA Khmer. Rights advocates say that kind of language is too watered down for the declaration to be effective.

“The fact that the commission has been so secretive about the draft may be explained by some of our concerns that a draft would contain the provisions that are below the international standard,” said Shiwei Ye, a Bangkok-based representative of the International Federation of Human Rights. The draft does not include protection against discrimination against sexual orientation, gender identity and indigenous rights, he said.

The draft declaration also includes provisions that could “justify abuses in a lot of Asean states,” he said. For example, the draft includes a clause that says fundamental freedoms can be limited according to “just requirements of national security, public order, public health, public safety, public morality, as well as the general welfare of the peoples in a democratic society.”

National security is a “vague concept that could justify the limitation of rights,” he said. “As we know, there are a number of security laws in the region that are used to abuse human rights.” Security laws in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, for example, are used to prosecute government critics, for example, he said.

Supporters of the declaration say it is necessary to help Asean states have a norm for human rights.

The six-page draft, marked “confidential” and obtained from an Asean diplomat, covers general principles of human rights; civil and political rights; economic, social and cultural rights; and rights for peace and development.

“The enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms must be balanced with the performance of corresponding duties as every person has responsibilities to all other individuals, the community and the society where one lives,” according to the draft. “It is ultimately the primary responsibility of all Asean member states to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

The declaration outlines protections for women, children, the elderly, persons with disabilities and migrant workers. It mandates the courts to protect against human rights violations. But it also says human rights “must be considered in the regional and national context bearing in mind different political, economic, legal, social, cultural, historical and religious backgrounds.”

Om Yentieng, chairman of the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, or AICHR, which is in charge of the draft, could not be reached for comment.

Kao Kimhourn, secretary of state for Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the draft meets international standards and will act as a charter for individual countries as they create their own laws to enact it. “So it’s important to have a common stance for all 10 countries,” he said, adding that this does not mean one country in the group can force laws on another. Cambodia, for example, has a law that prohibits executions. “But we cannot require the other nine countries to do the same,” he said.

Asean foreign ministers will meet informally in New York this month to discuss the draft during a UN General Assembly meeting, he said. “At that time, we hope the foreign ministers will adopt it and then submit it to heads of state to sign in November,” when Cambodia hosts a summit of Asean leaders as rotating president of the group, he said.

Surin Pitsuwan, secretary-general of Asean, told VOA Khmer that the declaration will act as “a commitment of all Asean member states to a standard of behavior on human rights.” “It’s an umbrella declaration statement that will certainly commit all of us to a norm, a set of norms on human rights,” he said.

Supporters say the declaration also affirms Asean states’ commitments to international norms, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UN charters and others. Individual states must still be in charge of making sure they meet international norms, they say.

“It is important to stress here that the Thai government will not let this important document fall below internationally accepted standards,” Thani Thongphakdi, a spokesman for the Thai Foreign Ministry, said in an e-mail. “We are working closely with the Thai representative to AICHR to ensure that the declaration truly address the needs of the Asean people.”

Indigenous rights, or those for sexual orientation and gender identity are “truly important,” he said. “We are still in the negotiating process with the [declaration] text,” he said. “Bearing in mind that Asean is a diverse community and society, it is important to fine tune the differences and work on common acceptable positions.”

Thani said the concerns of rights groups—that the declaration will allow for prosecution of government critics—are not warranted. The declaration, he said, “is an expression of our common political commitment. It contains elements on how to safeguard fundamental human rights and to promote these values as common and accepted norms. As the intention of our leaders is to promote and protect human rights, this declaration cannot be used to charge and prosecute those critics with differing views from the government.”

However, not everyone agrees.

Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the draft declaration gives more power to governments to restrict criticism. In a declaration that is more concerned with “cultural rights” and “state rights,” he said, the government is left to decide. This generally means that people’s rights are limited under the state. “In fact, the draft will tie the legs of the people more than protect the people’s rights,” he said.

Sections of the declaration regarding public order and security can be abused, he said. This can limit the right to assembly and can lead to crackdowns on protesters and dissent, he said.

Shiwei Ye, of the International Federation of Human Right, said the draft process has not included enough input from rights organizations and the rest of civil society throughout the region.

“I think Asean is trying to shore up its image globally, its credibility globally, and we urge Asean and AICHR to consult and to be transparent about the Asean declaration,” he said. The draft should be made public for consultation, he said. Otherwise it “will not be very meaningful and will be merely window dressing.”