The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) adopted its controversial human rights declaration in Phnom Penh on Sunday, despite overwhelming criticisms by civil society groups.
Marking the first day of the 21st ASEAN summit, leaders of the ten Southeast Asian member states ratified the document, which Human Rights Watch (HRW) has described as the “flawed result of a flawed process”.
ASEAN chief Surin Pitsuwan told reporters on Sunday that members had agreed to include a new paragraph at the last minute committing them to international human rights standards. “I think that is a major development and member states feel quite ready for this.”
But Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of HRW’s Asia Division slammed the amendment as “political theatre”.
“As members of the UN, all these governments were supposed to follow the Universal Declaration on Human Rights anyways,” he told DVB.
“What we have here is an effort by ASEAN to try and deceive the international community to give them a pass as they adopt a human rights declaration that by their own admission does not meet international human rights standards.”
On Friday, Pitsuwan conceded that criticisms of the document are “valid”, but said that the bad elements should not be used to outweigh the good.
“I am a realist, he told DVB in an interview. ”I think it is a good beginning and I think it’s what’s possible at this time.”
“It’s probably not up to universal standards, it’s probably subjecting to rights of … the government rather than absolute rights of the individual… but politics is the art of the possible,” he said.
The non-binding declaration was developed through consensus and calls for an end to torture, arbitrary detention and other violations, but activists say it contains major loopholes that allow members to continue to commit abuses with impunity. It was drafted without civil society input and excludes key provisions, including the right to free assembly, and allows members to adapt its application to local circumstances.
Some diplomats have defended the document, claiming that it will help foster change in a region dominated by countries with a poor record on human rights. Pitsuwan insisted that he has witnessed steady progress on human rights since becoming Secretary General in 1999.
But this week alone, the Cambodian government has been accused of threatening and harassing activists in an effort to silence grassroots voices ahead of the ASEAN summit.
“I expect that shepherding through the ASEAN declaration will become Prime Minister Hun Sen’s new ‘excuse shield’ whenever he is accused of being deficient in protecting human rights,” added Robertson.
While Burmese Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin told AP that he welcomes the declaration, the government continues to reject ASEAN interference in its treatment of Muslim Rohingyas.
The Burmese government has come under fire for its treatment of the stateless Rohingyas, since violence flared between them and Arakanese Buddhists in early June and again last month, resulting in the deaths of over 150 people.
The conflict in Arakan state was raised in the meeting of Foreign Ministers on Saturday, but reports suggest that Burma will block any attempt to include a reference to the crisis in the summit’s concluding statement. Pitsuwan has also insisted that ASEAN cannot press Burma on the controversial issue of Rohingya citizenship.
Burma is set to take the ASEAN chair in 2014.