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Mixed Reviews of Asean Rights Declaration

From left: South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak, China's Premier Wen Jiabao, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen and Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda prepare to join hands together for a group photo during the ASEAN Plus Three (APT) Commemorative Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, Nov. 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

WASHINGTON DC - The Asean Human Rights Declaration has caused mixed reaction in Washington, with critics calling it a weakening of rights commitments in the region and supporters saying it is a document that can be improved on.

Supporters and detractors of the declaration recently met in Washington, in a US-Asean symposium, to discuss its regional and international implications. The declaration was passed at an Asean summit in Phnom Penh in November, despite objections by rights advocates.

The declaration’s passage comes at a time when Asean’s 10 nation states are seeking greater recognition internationally, while trying to better tie their goals together. But only one out of all the countries—Indonesia—was ranked “free” by the US watchdog Freedom House. The rest are only “partly free” or “not free.”

Following the approval of the document, opinions are divided on what good, if any, a declaration of human rights might achieve in the region. The US has expressed “deep disappointment and concern” for it, saying it could undermine rights gains in Southeast Asia. But opposition is strongest among regional human rights advocates.

Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in Thailand, called the declaration “a tragedy” for the region’s 600 million people. “It is a document that allows Asean member states to not respect human rights,” he said, adding that if Asean wants to be seen as respectful of basic rights, “it needs to rewrite its human rights declaration.”

Speaking to VOA Khmer after the symposium, Yap Swee Seng, executive director of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, said the declaration was harmful, because it would legitimize government action against dissent.

“So the governments now can claim that they act in accordance to the Asean Human Rights Declaration, when they are actually committing human rights violations,” he said. Demonstrators, for example, can be accused of violating the declaration and the right for peace and public order, he said.

However, Rafendi Djamin, a representative of Indonesia on the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, said the declaration will protect people and should be implemented. “This is a declaration of rights,” he said. “Because it is a declaration of rights, it is too simplistic to say it is only protecting the governments.”

Christina Cerna, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington, also defended the declaration, saying it was at least a starting point, though there remains room for improvement.

“I think for many people perfection can be the enemy of the good, and even if the declaration is not perfect, or everything that one might wish to see, it is very exciting,” she said. The declaration “includes so many civil and political, economic, social and cultural rights in one instrument, and the right to development, and the right to peace,” she said.

The next step is to determine how one can make a complaint to the Asean rights commission after human rights violations have been identified, she said.

“The declaration is right now a piece of paper,” she said. “Unless there is a protection mechanism, it means nothing.”