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Activists Reject Southeast Asia’s Human Rights Declaration

More than 50 human rights groups in Southeast Asia issued a statement criticizing the recent unveiling of a Human Rights Declaration drafted by the 10-member nation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The signing of the joint declaration was done during the 21st ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh last month. The initiative to establish the region’s first joint declaration on human rights was discussed in Laos in 2010 but key stakeholders and other human rights advocates complained that they were not consulted.

When the declaration was made public this month, it was immediately dismissed by regional human rights organizations for containing provisions that allegedly distort universal standards on human rights protection. In particular, they question the wording of the declaration’s general principles which balance rights with duties and responsibilities imposed by member countries.

Hundreds join a protest action in Phnom Penh to assert the human rights agenda during the 21st ASEAN Summit. Photo by Erika Pineros, Copyright @Demotix (11/16/2012)

The controversial provisionreads this way:

…the realisation of human rights must be considered in the regional and national context bearing in mind different political, economic, legal, social, cultural, historical and religious backgrounds.

The exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of others, and to meet 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.

Indeed, several fundamental rights were identified in the declaration like the right to vote, the right to participate in government, and the right to form and join trade unions, but these supposedly universal rights are apparently applicable only if they conform to existing national laws and policies.

Prachatai published the statement of civil society groups which criticized the declaration:

The document is a declaration of government powers disguised as a declaration of human rights.

It is deplorable that the governments of ASEAN have insisted on making a Declaration that implies that their people are less deserving of human rights than the people of Europe, Africa or the Americas. The people of ASEAN should never accept a lower level of protection of their human rights than the rest of the world.

The Declaration fails to include several key basic rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to freedom of association and the right to be free from enforced disappearance.

It is highly regrettable that governments in the ASEAN who are more democratic and open to human rights succumbed to the pressure of human rights-hostile governments into adopting a deeply flawed instrument.

This Declaration is not worthy of its name. We therefore reject it. We will not use it in our work as groups engaged in the protection of human rights in the region. We will not invoke it in addressing ASEAN or ASEAN member states, except to condemn it as an anti-human rights instrument.

According to Maruah, a human rights group in Singapore, the declaration subverts the concept of human rights:

This is objectionable and self-defeating…This provision in the (declaration) is prohibitive and subverts the concept of human rights. We are very concerned with this inclusion of ‘public morality’ as it is subjective and can be interpreted in such a manner that affects people, particularly women from fulfilling their rights. This provision is objectionable, as subjectivities in the interpretation of morality will adversely increase the vulnerability of certain communities…instead of embracing universality, it has marginalised certain communities by exclusions.

Karapatan, a human rights network in the Philippines, is worried that the declaration might be used as a ‘blueprint for further rights violations’:

These are not just mere loopholes of the declaration which may be suited to the State parties’ interests, but we fear these provisions will be used to justify the States’ continuing violations of human rights in the region. The declaration will not only be deemed meaningless in the promotion, protection and realization of human rights, it may likewise be used as a blueprint for further rights violations

The Committee to Protect Journalists notes that the document ‘lacks a corresponding mechanism for enforcement.’

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