Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004

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@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

The document is a proclamation of governmental powers disguised as a declaration of human rights.

This was the scathing reaction of more than 50 human rights groups in Southeast Asia to the recent unveiling of a Human Rights Declaration drafted by the 10-member nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The signing of the joint declaration was supposed to be the high point during the 21st ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh but it turned out to be an embarrassing moment when civil society groups rejected it as an “anti-human rights instrument.” It was ASEAN’s chance to prove its adherence to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) but instead it merely made itself vulnerable to criticisms that it’s an organization comprised of “human rights-hostile governments.”

The initiative to establish the region’s first joint declaration on human rights was discussed in Laos in 2010 by the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. Countless officials and experts from ASEAN member countries had a hand in the drafting of the declaration. Still, key stakeholders and human rights advocates complained that they were not consulted.

When the declaration was made public this month, it was immediately dismissed by regional human rights organizations who claimed it contained provisions that distort universal standards on human rights protection. In particular, they question the wording of the declaration’s general principles which balance rights with duties and responsibilities imposed by member countries.

“…the realization 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,” a controversial provision reads.

“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.”

Indeed, several fundamental rights were identified in the declaration like the right to vote, the right to participate in government, and the right to form and join trade unions, but these supposedly universal rights are apparently applicable only if they conform to existing national laws and policies.

Maruah, a human rights group in Singapore, argued that the declaration subverts the concept of human rights by defining them through the lens of national governments instead of affirming them as the absolute and irrevocable rights of individuals. Maruah also derided ASEAN’s decision to include “public morality” in the document, arguing that the term is “subjective and can be interpreted in such a manner that affects people, particularly women from fulfilling their rights.”

Philippine human rights network Karapatan worries that the loopholes in the declaration would be used by state parties in the region as a “blueprint for further rights violations.”

Meanwhile, the Committee to Protect Journalists noted in a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama that the document does not have a clear mechanism for enforcement.

Even the U.S. State Department—while stating, “in principle, we support ASEAN’s efforts to develop a regional human rights declaration”—said in a statement that it was “deeply concerned that many of the ASEAN Declaration’s principles and articles could weaken and erode universal human rights and fundamental freedoms as contained in the UDHR.”

Navanethem Pillay, the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, joined 62 local, regional, and international civil society groups by going so far as to call on ASEAN to suspend the signing of the declaration.

Taken aback by the flurry of criticisms of the declaration, ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan defended ASEAN saying the organization and its members “have come a long way on human rights” and contending that the group is “looking at it [human rights] in a long timeframe” with the declaration being an important step in “a progression.”

ASEAN did the right thing in conceptualizing a regional human rights agreement but its attempt to refashion human rights to suit the national interests of its members is a serious attack on the principles of human rights. Perhaps it’s wise for ASEAN to review the implementation of the declaration and consult a larger pool of stakeholders as part of a possible parth forward.

Written for The Diplomat

Obama and Human Rights in ASEAN

Economics and security matters will probably the main issues which United States President Barack Obama will discuss with leaders of Southeast Asia when he attends the 21st Summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Phnom Penh.

Aside from Cambodia, Obama will make a historic and dramatic visit to Myanmar (Burma) which would formally signal to the world that the US is quite satisfied with the reforms being undertaken by the Burmese civilian government. Obama will also visit Thailand to bolster his country’s alliance with its oldest military ally in the Asia-Pacific.

Obama is expected to renew the commitment of his government to remain an active development partner and investor in the region. His comment on the maritime and border disputes involving China and several Southeast Asian nations is also eagerly anticipated by everybody. Obama might also use this opportunity to acknowledge the role of ASEAN member countries in combating international terrorist cells in their territories.

But since this is going to be Obama’s first foreign trip after being reelected, it’s hoped that he also includes human rights protection in his agenda.

For instance, Obama can remind both Burmese President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi about their important role in reducing the ethnic tension between Rakhines and Rohingyas in Arakan State. He can persuade both leaders to recognize that the issue cannot be resolved by merely invoking the rule of law. At the minimum, he can ask the government to review its hardline policy of denying citizenship rights to Rohingya people.

In Cambodia, Obama can cite the recent study made by Human Rights Watch about the rise of unsolved and unresolved extrajudicial killings in the past two decades, which coincided with the term of incumbent Prime Minister Hun Sen. Obama can also inquire about the numerous land conflicts which have led to intensified militarization of rural areas, displacement of thousands of villagers in development sites, and death squad killings of environment activists.

The strong bilateral ties between Thailand and the U.S. should not stop Obama, hopefully, from suggesting some amendments in the controversial Lese Majeste law, which is considered by many legal scholars as the world’s harshest. The law may have been effective in protecting the royal family but it’s also being used to harass government critics and prosecute ordinary Thais which have curtailed freedom of speech and expression in the country.

While it may be unpleasant and even undiplomatic for Obama to raise these sensitive issues, it would send a strong message to the world that his government is seriously committed to advance the human rights agenda in the next four years. If the U.S. government can secure military basing agreements and enormous trade deals with ASEAN member nations, maybe it can also use its influence to secure the freedom of political prisoners, the investigation of political killings, and the review of repressive laws in the region.

Of course, Southeast Asian leaders can always retort by reminding Obama that the U.S. also has a problematic human rights record; but at least there will be an exchange of views about these taboo topics that are not often included in formal inter-government meetings.

If human rights will not be on the agenda in the ASEAN Summit, and if Obama refuses to talk about it in his speeches, expect the rights movement to raise it in alternative summits in Phnom Penh, Rangoon, and Bangkok

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