PHNOM PENH — The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) launched a non-binding human rights code on Sunday in the Cambodian capital, drawing fire from critics who say the declaration fails to meet international standards.
Opening the 21st Asean Summit on Sunday morning, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said that the human rights declaration “will further promote peace, security, reconciliation and protection of human rights in the region.”
Critics say, however, that the new charter falls far short of what is needed to improve the often deplorable rights records of countries in the region.
“Our worst fears in this process have now come to pass. Rather than meeting international standards, this declaration lowers them by creating new loopholes and justifications that Asean member states can use to justify abusing the rights of their people,” says Phil Robertson of US-based Human Rights Watch.
Outgoing Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan rejected such criticism, however, noting that the last-minute insertion of a clause “committing ourselves to international human rights standards such as the Vienna Declaration and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” means that Asean is not only “promoting and protecting human rights in our own way, but aiming to protect using international standards.”
The launch of the document comes at a time when the Cambodian authorities have been cracking down on land rights activists and journalists, and a week after homeless people and sex workers were cleared off the streets as the government sought to portray a clean, well-run capital ahead of the arrival of heads of government from Southeast Asia as well as leaders from China, Japan, India and the US.
The code comes into being three years after Asean set up an intergovernmental human rights body during a Thailand summit in 2009.
Since then, the drafting process for the declaration was largely carried out behind closed doors and human rights groups say that it was marred by a lack of transparency and consultation, meaning that the intervening period failed to yield much progress in putting together an effective regional human rights code.
“I am concerned that the member countries are not really committed to implementing human rights across the region,” says Indonesian human rights activist Dewi Ratnawulan.
Speaking on Saturday evening, Cambodia’s Secretary of State of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Kao Kim Hourn said that “the current draft may not be perfect,” but added that it would be signed nonetheless, with Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Hor Namhong saying earlier that the code is a “starting point.”
The declaration comes amid ongoing human rights violations in several countries in the region.
Vietnam remains a one-party state where amid an economic slowdown and in-fighting within the ruling Communist Party, writers and singers who criticize the government continue to be jailed. In late October, two musicians were imprisoned, and in September three well-known writers were jailed for alleged anti-Communist propaganda.
In Thailand, criticism of the country’s royal family is punishable by up to 15 years in jail under possibly the world’s harshest lèse majesté laws, while Laos, like Vietnam, is a one-party Communist state.
Burma, long singled out for censure by the West, has seen some improvement in its international standing over the past year with the release of dissidents from prison and the holding of free and fair by-elections in April, but remains in the hot seat for continuing conflicts in Arakan State in the west of the country and in Kachin State in the north, with around 200,000 people left homeless by fighting.
Discussing the proceedings at the Asean foreign minister’s meetings in Phnom Penh on Saturday, however, Surin said that “they [the ministers] listened to the reports of the Myanmar government on the reconciliation process and on the democratization process and have been reassured that things are on course.”
Some mention of ethnic violence in Burma is likely to be included in the Asean summit’s final statement, according to the Cambodian spokesman Kao Kim Hourn, summarizing Saturday’s foreign minister discussions.
Meanwhile, Burmese President Thein Sein sent a letter to the United Nations on Friday saying his government would consider additional rights for the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group that has borne the brunt of months of communal violence in Arakan State.
The Rohingya, regarded by ethnic Arakanese and many Burmese elsewhere in the country as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, are not recognized by the Burmese government as one of the country’s 135 listed ethnic groups and are denied citizenship rights by a 1982 law.
The Rohingya issue also came up on Sunday morning, when Asean leaders discussed the situation in Arakan State, according to Surin. The Asean secretary-general commented that among the concerns raised with Thein Sein was the view that “if the issue is not handled by the Myanmar government, there is a risk of radicalization and extremism in that region.”
Thein Sein is expected to hear more about rights issues when he meets US President Barack Obama on Monday.
Ahead of the historic visit, the US announced it would allow Burmese exports to enter the US for the first time since 2003, despite no political prisoners apparently being freed in a prisoner amnesty last week.