ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan (R) attends the opening day of the ASEAN and East Asia summits, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post
The endorsement of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration went off without a hitch yesterday, despite frequent, sustained objections by a slew of civil-society groups that maintained the controversial document would undermine human rights rather than protect them.
Signed by a host of dignitaries including Prime Minister Hun Sen and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on the opening day of the 21st ASEAN Summit, the document was not made immediately available to the public or to rights organisations. Among the criticisms levelled at the drafters during recent months has been a lack of transparency and consultation while the document was being prepared.
“It’s so opaque,” Yuval Ginbar, a legal adviser and ASEAN expert with the rights organisation Amnesty International said. “Nobody really knows what’s happening; nobody has the text. I’m a little baffled myself.”
According to ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan, the declaration included a paragraph not seen in earlier drafts that reaffirmed ASEAN member states’ commitment to existing declarations, which form the basis of international standards on human rights.
Ginbar, however, said the new language was unlikely to have a real impact on the declaration, given that three of the document’s general principles would have an extremely limiting effect on human rights protection.
“That’s the problem of the whole declaration, because it’s subject to these three provisos,” he said, referring to articles that soften the declaration’s applicability to cater to member states’ culture and history, and an oft-criticised “public morality” clause – a subjective phrase that opponents say could lead to abuses of the rights of women and the LGBT community.
“I can’t see how any additional provision would sort this out. I think the only way to sort it out is to remove those three principles.”
ASEAN delegates and officials, however, were quick to laud the new agreement.
Surin said the declaration was a “legacy for our children”, and later seemed to imply that the new language referencing international agreements would address “all those complaints, or observations, or encouragement that we should go further”.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa called the document “an important benchmark for ASEAN to be kept honest in terms of its human rights obligations”, and warned against hasty speculation on the part of critics.
“It would be kind and wise for all of us to read the document before we jump to certain conclusions,” he said. “I think if the most neutral observer, if they were to read it... would have to acknowledge this is an important document that is consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the Vienna Human Rights Program of Action.”
Nay Vanda, deputy head of the human rights section of Adhoc, said they, like other rights groups, had not received a copy of the final version, but added that if the new clauses live up to their billing, it would be a very positive development.
On the other hand, he said: “If it doesn’t comply with international human rights instruments, it would be very disappointing.”
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said via email that he hadn’t seen the latest draft either, but that the additions were “too little, too late”.
“The brutal reality is that some ASEAN members are simply not prepared to accept universal standards of human rights, full stop,” he said.