Asean Leaders Sign Human Rights Declaration

Leaders of the 10 Asean countries yesterday signed the regional bloc’s first-ever declaration on human rights, with a last-minute amendment that rights workers said failed to assuage fears that the document’s wording will make it counterproductive to the protection of civil liberties.

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Anti-eviction protesters at Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak lake display a portrait of U.S. President Barack Obama yesterday, asking for his help in protecting their land rights. Mr. Obama will arrive in Phnom Penh today for the Asean and East Asia summits. (Siv Channa)

Prime Minister Hun Sen, as chairman of Asean this year and facing international criticism for Cambodia’s own human rights record, hosted the signing of the Asean Declaration of Human Rights during a ceremony at his office, the Peace Palace, in Phnom Penh.

Earlier drafts of the declaration drew criticism from rights groups and from the U.N., who warned that the agreement may give regional countries a get-out clause from stronger international human rights treaties to which they are already signatories.

Speaking with reporters after the signing of the declaration, Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said that leaders had “noted those complaints” and that regional foreign ministers had agreed to change the text on Saturday.

“That is to add one more important paragraph in what we call the operations part. And that is to commit ourselves to the universal declarations,” Mr. Surin said, referring to the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the 1993 Vienna Declaration and Program of Action.

“[We are] not only declaring that we shall pursue the protection and promotion of human rights in the region in our own way, but also trying to maintain the highest standard as expressed in various instruments and various declarations of the international community,” he added.

According to a copy of the document handed to reporters yesterday, the final clause of the declaration states, “Nothing in this declaration may be interpreted as implying for any state, group or person any right to perform any act aimed at undermining the purposes and principles of Asean, or at the destruction of any of the rights and fundamental freedoms set forth in this declaration and international human rights instruments to which Asean member states are parties.”

The last-minute amendment comes after strong criticism of the declaration from a U.N. fact-finding committee on Friday. In an open letter, the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures of the U.N. Human Rights Council called on the signatories to “ensure that international human rights standards are maintained when they come to consider the adoption of the Asean Human Rights Declaration.”

In the letter, the U.N. experts pointed to the declaration’s use of the terms “morality,” “national security” and “public order” and the risk they could be “used as a pretext by governments to place arbitrary, disproportionate and unnecessary restrictions on human rights.”

The final version of the declaration still included those words.

“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,” the declarations states.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa defended the declaration.

“The most neutral observer, if they were actually to read what has been adopted just now, would have to acknowledge that this is an important document that is consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action,” Mr. Natalegawa said.

“It is something that we now possess that we did not possess beforehand. So it’s an important benchmark for Asean to be kept honest in terms of its human rights obligations.”

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said that the declaration was “a flawed result of a flawed process where governments made the decisions while the people were left outside the meeting room.”

“Sadly, falling short of international human rights standards is nothing new to Asean,” Mr. Robertson said in an email.

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