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Summit Leaders sign ASEAN Human Rights Declaration

Updated On: Nov 19, 2012

ASEAN heads of state signed the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration yesterday, as regional leaders met in Phnom Penh for the 22nd ASEAN Summit.

The declaration, which pledges to uphold basic freedoms of citizens in the region, has undergone almost one year of drafting in a process that has come under heavy criticism by civil society groups.

“In applying this declaration, Asean will abide by, respect and apply universal human rights principles,” said Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa. Leaders signed off to promote and protect civil, political, economic and social rights, including the right to development.

Other Commissioners hailed the signing, with Singapore's representative on the ASEAN Human Rights Commission Professor Chan Heng Chee, saying that such a document was not a possibility for the grouping five years ago.

However, since the establishment of an ASEAN Human Rights Commission in 2009, the drafting process for the Declaration has been an arduous one.

With ASEAN states in various forms of democratisation, including closed off states such as Laos and Vietnam, to semi-democracies, such as Singapore and Malaysia, to more liberal democracies in the Philippines and Indonesia — agreeing on terms acceptable to all has been tricky, especially in countries in which human rights remain a sensitive issue.

Now that the document has been adopted, a main point of contention is the declaration’s General Principles, which potentially makes protections subject to 'national and regional contexts'. This has led to fears that governments will use this as a get-out clause in order to defend possible human rights abuses.

Apart from the content of the report, others have criticised of the drafting process as a whole, as the Commission failed to release versions of the draft for consultation before adopting the final document.

In response, commissioners who helped draft the declaration say that it should be seen as a starting point, to which governments can be held accountable, and not a perfect document.

Before adoption of the Declaration, over 60 rights groups issued a joint statement, requesting the signing to be postponed. They echoed concerns expressed by Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who also requested the Declaration be delayed, citing concerns about the drafting process and the fact that it could fall short of universal human rights standards.

Civil society groups that hoped to stage rallies on the Declaration and other social issues have also complained that their events had been curtailed or shut down. No public demonstrations are permitted during the course of the summit, which, according to the Cambodian government, is to ensure there are no disruptions.

Although many question whether the declaration is a step backwards, the Commission has sought to allay fears that the document undercuts the Declaration of Human Rights, which drafters pledged to uphold. “If you don’t have anything then you cannot hold governments to anything,” said Rafendi Djamin, Indonesia's representative to the Commission, “It’s a living document and that means it can be improved.”

Several ASEAN members continue to face accusations that they violate rights, including Myanmar, which has recently undergone a series of political and economic reforms in its reopening in the region.

Report: Asean Adopts Controversial Human Rights Declaration [Jakarta Globe, November 19, 2012]

Report: Leaders at ASEAN summit sign human rights declaration [Channel News Asia, 18 November 2012]

Report: Asean Human-Rights Pledge Leaves Critics Cool [WSJ, November 18, 2012]