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ASEAN Approves Controversial Human Rights Declaration

Cambodia's PM Hun Sen, left, with ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan after the ceremony for the adoption of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, during the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, November 18, 2012.
Southeast Asian leaders have signed off on a controversial region-wide human rights declaration in what they say is a landmark moment. But critics say the declaration is insufficient and will give countries an excuse to ignore, rather than protect, human rights.

Heads of state from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations hailed the agreement as a significant milestone for the region. In a ceremony on Sunday, leaders from the 10-member bloc etched their signatures on a region-wide Human Rights Declaration.

ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan had only praise for the accord when speaking with reporters afterwards.

“I think that is a major, major development... the leaders have just signed that into a declaration committing themselves, every government, every country, to the highest standards, existing and available. And this certainly can be used to monitor the practice, the protection, the promotion of human rights here in the ASEAN countries," he said.

However, many rights groups say the declaration will likely fall short of minimum standards, even though ASEAN leaders have touted recent additions highlighting the importance of existing international laws.

Of particular concern, critics say, are sections included in previous drafts that suggest rights will be considered in light of “regional and national contexts." The same passage remains in the final declaration released publicly late Sunday.

“You cannot have a national or regional exception," said Phil Robertson, who is with New York-based Human Rights Watch. "You cannot set out a wide range of instances, like public morality, when all these rights would not apply. All they have done is they have put the loopholes up front and then they have tried to decorate around them.”

About five-dozen rights groups from across ASEAN have also signed statements criticizing the declaration. Critics have also slammed the process behind drafting the declaration. An ASEAN committee was formed to create initial drafts, but these were never released publicly, even during limited consultation sessions with civil society groups.

“So far, we are working on leaked drafts, or sometimes just rumors," said Mora Sar, who is with the ASEAN Grassroots Peoples’ Assembly. "If they signed it in this current form, we as civil society, we are really upset.”

Rights groups have tried to make human rights a pressing issue during these meetings, particularly ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama’s highly anticipated visit, which is scheduled to begin Monday following a stopover in Burma. But it is likely that ongoing debates over territorial claims to the South China Sea, as well as discussions on the economy and potential new free-trade areas, will dominate upcoming summit meetings.