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ASEAN: Leaders Adopt Human Rights Declaration

(Nov. 21, 2012) Leaders of the ten-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), during their annual summit held this year in Cambodia from November 18 to 20, endorsed a declaration on human rights. (ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, ASEAN website (Nov. 19, 2012).) The stated aims of the declaration are to respect and promote “human rights and fundamental freedoms.” In addition to a declaration of general principles, the document contains provisions on civil and political rights; economic, social, and cultural rights; the right to development; and the right to peace. The last few clauses are on cooperation to protect human rights among the ASEAN nations and with regional and international institutions. (Id.; Jim Gomez, ASEAN Leaders to Adopt Rights Pact Despite Protest, THE JAKARTA POST (Nov. 16, 2012).)

The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), established by the association in 2009, drafted the declaration. The working group for the project was set up at the sixth meeting of the AICHR, held in Vientiane, Laos, in June 2011. (AICHR Forms Drafting Group for Human Rights Declaration, AICHR website; Sixth Meeting of the AICHR Concluded, AICHR website (both last visited Nov. 19, 2012).)

Surin Pitsuwan, the Secretary-General of ASEAN, called the adoption of the declaration “a major, major development.” He added that the ASEAN nations have committed “every government, every country, to the highest standards, existing and available” and that the declaration “can be used to monitor the practice, the protection, the promotion of human rights here in the ASEAN countries.” (Talia Ralph, ASEAN Leaders Sign Human Rights Declaration at Cambodia Summit, GLOBAL POST (Nov. 18, 2012).)

The document is controversial, however, as some observers consider that it does not meet international human rights standards. There are clauses in the declaration that permit rights to be abridged for national security reasons, to maintain public order, and as a matter of morality. (Gomez, supra;Yohanna Ririhena & Margareth Aritonang, Asean Rights Declaration Draft Fails to Impress UNHRC, ASIA NEWS NETWORK (Nov. 14, 2012); Ralph, supra.)

One of the critics of the declaration is United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay, who had asked leaders to stop working on the draft document and have a more open creation process. Pillay stated, “I must say that I am surprised and disappointed that the draft declaration has not been made public. And that civil society has not been consulted over the drafting of the document.” (Ririhena & Aritonang, supra.)

Michel Forst, the Chair of the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Coordination Committee, a group of independent experts on human rights, issued a statement on the declaration draft, urging “as a minimum, [it is important that] ASEAN’s landmark human rights instrument maintains international standards to complement the work of the UN human rights system.”(Press Release, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “ASEAN Human Rights Declaration Should Maintain International Standards,” Urge Key UN Expert Group (Nov. 16, 2012).)

Specific concerns of the Committee include the declaration’s limitations on the right to life. Forst stated:

In relation to the right to life, provisions such as ‘in accordance with national law’ could be used to shield States against scrutiny by international human rights mechanisms concerning the excessive use of force by law enforcement officers, state failure to protect people against non-state actors and the continuation of the use of the death penalty. (Id.)

The nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch has said that the document “as written, does not meet international human rights standards and may, we fear, be used by ASEAN governments to justify violating rights.” (Gomez, supra.)

Speaking in support of the proposed declaration, Rosario Manalo, a diplomat from the Philippines, stated that the document had to be accepted through a consensus process involving all ten ASEAN member countries and that given that constraint, “[i]t’s not perfect but it’s a new benchmark for ASEAN.” (Id.)