Pledging to promote and protect human rights along with democracy, rule of law and good governance, 10 ASEAN leaders adopted the first human rights declaration in the region amid criticism that it falls short of international principles.
“The adoption of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration [AHRD] at the 21st ASEAN Summit will further
promote peace, security, reconciliation and the protection of human rights in the region,” Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Sunday.
Preparing the declaration was one of the key mandates of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), which was established in 2009.
ASEAN Secretary–General Surin Pitsuwan declared that the association would pursue the highest standards expressed in various instruments and declarations by the international community.
Critics are especially concerned about the lack of transparency during the drafting process and various clauses that detract from fundamental human rights principles.
“I am concerned that those will detract from the credibility of the document and the ownership of the document by the people concerned,” said United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights Navanethem Pillay as she voiced her concern over the lack of public consultancy during the process.
Over 60 human rights groups issued a joint statement urging ASEAN members to postpone the adoption.
NGOs have threatened to reject and condemn the declaration if ASEAN insists on proceeding with the adoption. Among the NGOs are very prominent organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and several from Indonesia, including the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras).
“The AHRD is not worthy of its name. The declaration as it stands now unquestionably fails to meet existing international human rights standards, let alone add value to them,” the statement reads.
In Geneva, the largest body of independent experts in the UN human rights system, called on ASEAN to ensure that international human rights standards were maintained.
“It is imperative that, as a minimum, ASEAN’s landmark human rights instrument maintains international standards to complement the work of the UN human rights system,” said Michel Forst, who currently chairs the Coordination Committee set up by independent experts designated by the UN Human Rights Council to address specific country situations and thematic issues in all parts of the world.
In an open letter to ASEAN member states, the group stressed the need to reaffirm the duty of states to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms regardless of their particular political, economic and cultural systems — one of the key principles of the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action, adopted by 171 states in 1993 to forge a new vision for global action for human rights into the next century.
To improve the human rights situation, the independent experts also urged ASEAN to consult further with the people of the region, including civil society organizations, and to take on board their concerns and aspirations.
Aware of criticism from civil society groups, ASEAN diplomats acknowledged that the declaration was not perfect, but given the differences in the political systems of ASEAN member nations, a substantial step forward.
“It is not easy to unify 10 nations and reach a similar level of protection,” director general for ASEAN cooperation at the Indonesian Foreign Ministry, I Gusti Agung Wesaka Puja, said.
Indonesia’s Representative to the AICHR, Rafendi Djamin, argued that the declaration was more of a political declaration to move forward on the protection of human rights for the 600 million people in ASEAN.