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Groups Want Stronger Asean Declaration of Human Rights

ASEAN countries' foreign ministers join their hands during a photo session at the 45th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers' Plus three Meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, July 10, 2012.

As Cambodia prepares to host a major regional security meeting in Phnom Penh this week, local and international rights group say the country should use its presidency of Asean this year to push for a declaration of human rights that is up to international standards.

Asean members have already drafted a human rights declaration that it expects to approve later this year, but built into it are limitations that rights advocates say need changed.

Asean officials have not allowed members of civil society to officially review their draft declaration, but according to a draft obtained by VOA Khmer, basic rights and freedoms are subject to a number of exceptions.

These include “the 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,” according to the draft.

These limitations create the potential for justifying human rights abuses, rights advocates say.

“Having points like that, I don’t want to see them, because human rights have already been recognized internationally,” said Pung Chhiv Kek, president of the rights group Licadho.

Rights workers from Southeast Asian countries should be allowed their input, she said, “in order to have a good document for the Asean declaration, for the advantage of the people.”

The draft declaration does call for rights to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion”; “opinion and expression”; and peaceful assembly and association.”

However, Shiwei Ye, a Bangkok-based representative of the International Federation of Human Rights, said the draft remains substandard because of its limitations.

“If Asean adopts a declaration that is lower than international human rights standards, that will be unacceptable,” he said. “Asean member states, as members of the United Nations, have to comply with those minimum standards.”

Observers say Asean member nations with poor human rights records, such as Burma, Cambodia or Vietnam, make it hard to open a dialogue with rights groups. Asean’s charter also prevents one nation from interfering with the internal affairs of another.

Asean leaders are expected to approve the declaration in a major summit in November. The draft will be finalized in October.

“I think one important provision to include in the declaration is that no parts of that declaration should be interpreted or implemented in a manner that undermine international human rights standards,” Shiwei Ye said. “Then we could always refer to this safeguard provision to make sure that, when members of Asean actually refer to the declaration in the future, they can’t use it as the excuse to justify human rights violations.”