Asean's human rights declaration criticised by US and others

Leaders sign human rights declaration, but Washington and NGOs object that loopholes included in deal could see violations continue

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 3:27am

Southeast Asian leaders yesterday adopted a human rights declaration despite last-minute calls by critics, including Washington, for a postponement. They said the pact contained loopholes that could allow atrocities to continue.

The 10 leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a bloc of liberal democracies and authoritarian states, signed a document adopting the Asean Human Rights Declaration in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, where the heads of state were holding an annual summit.

The non-binding declaration calls for an end to torture, arbitrary arrests and other rights violations that have been long-held concerns in Southeast Asia, which rights activists once derisively described as being ruled by a "club of dictators".

Asean diplomats have called the declaration a milestone in the region despite its imperfections, saying it will help cement democratic reforms in countries such as Myanmar, which until recently has been widely condemned for its human rights record.

Philippine diplomat Rosario Manalo said it was significant that the region's less democratic governments had embraced the declaration.

Founded in 1967 as an anti-communist bloc in the cold war era, Asean has taken feeble steps to address human rights concerns in the vast region of 600 million people. In 2007 it adopted a charter where it committed to upholding international law and human rights, but retained a bedrock principle of not interfering in each other's internal affairs - a loophole that critics say helps member states commit abuses without consequence.

In 2009 the group unveiled a commission to promote human rights, but it was deprived of power to investigate violations or go after abusers.

Asean leaders committed to promoting and protecting human rights, along with "democracy, rule of law and good governance", in a joint statement they signed to launch the declaration. But provisions say rights could be limited for reasons of security, public order or morality.

It adds that the "realisation of human rights must be considered in the regional and national context bearing in mind different political, economic, legal, social, cultural, historical and religious backgrounds".

Rights groups say that such conditions could be used to justify violations.

"Asean has finally stumbled across the finish line with a flawed declaration that falls short of international standards," said Phil Robertson of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Washington has also expressed concerns, along with Asean members Indonesia and the Philippines, which threatened to withhold support until the regional bloc agreed to add a paragraph where it pledged to enforce the declaration with a level of commitment accorded to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, diplomats said.