A group of international rights organizations on Monday urged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to put off the adoption of its first-ever Human Rights Declaration, saying the charter is not up to international standards and would fail to protect rights in the region.
The consortium of NGOs, which included the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and London-based Amnesty International, called for a review of the declaration in an open letter to the ASEAN Heads of State, who are expected to adopt the charter at a summit on Nov. 18-20 in Cambodia.
Cambodia is the current chair of ASEAN, which also includes member states Brunei, Burma, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
All rights allowed by the declaration could be restricted on vaguely worded grounds, including “national security” and “public morality,” the letter said.
Of particular concern, it said, are provisions in the declaration which stipulate that the enjoyment of rights is to be “balanced” subject to “national and regional contexts” and to considerations of “different cultural, religious and historical backgrounds.”
Wilder Tayler, secretary general of the International Commission of Jurists, said the idea that all human rights are to be “balanced” against individual responsibilities goes against the idea of human rights agreed upon in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The ASEAN member states had affirmed the Universal Declaration in 1993.
“Balancing human rights with responsibilities turns on its head the entire raison d’être of human rights,” Tayler said.
International law prohibits government from deviating from a broad set of rights, the letter said, while imposing on all ASEAN member states the duty to respect and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Souhayr Belhassen, president of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights, said the declaration in its current form “purports to make a significant and worrying departure from existing international human rights law and standards, including those found in other regional human rights instruments, in Europe, the Americas, and Africa.”
Michael Bochenek, director of Amnesty International’s Law and Policy Program, said that approving the declaration as is would go completely against the purpose of the document.
“Unless significant changes are made to the text, ASEAN will be adopting in 2012 a Human Rights Declaration that grants ASEAN Member States additional powers to violate human rights instead of providing the region’s people with additional safeguards against such violations.”
The organizations urged ASEAN leaders to return the draft to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights with clear instructions to redraft it “in a transparent, deliberate and inclusive process, in full consultation with all stakeholders, so that it does not fall below internationally recognized human rights law and standards.”
As the current chair of ASEAN, Cambodia is eager to avoid a second gaffe after an unprecedented failure to issue a joint communiqué at the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in July over the region's dispute with Beijing on overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Some diplomats from ASEAN had charged that Cambodia was influenced by its giant ally China not to incorporate the views of ASEAN member states the Philippines and Vietnam in the statement, causing an impasse at the meeting.
It is believed that Cambodia is willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that the declaration is adopted later this month during the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh.
ASEAN established its human rights body, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) in 2009, with one of its key mandates to prepare a draft of the ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights. Its adoption would be a defining moment in the association’s 45-year-old history.
Om Yin Tieng, who is the rotating chairman of the Intergovernmental ASEAN Human Rights Commission and also heads Cambodia’s Human Rights Committee, stressed on Monday that the declaration is not a legally binding document.
“The declaration on ASEAN human rights is a document on the political will of the leaders of the ten member states,” he said.
“It is not a legal document.”
Om Yin Tieng had announced in late October that the declaration would be officially adopted during the ASEAN summit.
But the draft has drawn criticism from a number of rights groups, including in summit host Cambodia, in addition to those that issued the open letter on Monday.
Am Sam Ath, a technical supervisor for Cambodian rights group Licadho, said the wording of the declaration is too broad because of the political differences of the ASEAN member states.
“Countries in ASEAN—some are democratic and some are communist,” he said.
“Thus, the declaration on ASEAN human rights was compiled in accordance with these two political systems, making it fall short of the international standard. That is our main concern.”
Last month, NGOs gathered in Phnom Penh expressed concern that time is running out to rid the proposed draft of clauses that would restrict peoples’ rights.
The Jakarta Post quoted Nay Vanda, deputy head of the monitoring section of Cambodian rights group ADHOC, as saying that civil society groups need more opportunities to consult with leaders on the wording of the declaration.
“The [declaration] can be a success for the government … if it is equal or higher than [the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights],” he said.
“If it is lower, it can ruin the reputation of Cambodia.”
Rights groups have also complained that the drafting process has lacked transparency. The only glimpse NGOs and the public have had of the draft declaration was by way of a leaked document.
Reported by Tin Zakariya for RFA’s Khmer service and by Joshua Lipes. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.