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Rights Groups Urge Release of ASEAN Declaration

  • Irwin Loy

ASEAN foreign ministers of Cambodia, center, Brunei, right, and Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan meet with Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights Representative at Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 8, 2012.
PHNOM PENH — Rights groups are urging the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to release a copy of a long-awaited declaration on human rights. As regional officials prepare to open high-level meetings this week in Cambodia, critics say an ASEAN rights commission drafting the documents has been far too secretive throughout the process.

ASEAN officials have long promised a definitive statement governing human rights among member states. While rights groups say this is an admirable step, they also deplore what they claim has been an overly secretive process to create the Human Rights Declaration.

Sunday, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, or AICHR, the group drafting the document, met to officially deliver the latest version of the declaration to foreign ministers from ASEAN countries.

But AICHR has refused to release a draft of the declaration, and critics say civil society groups have been largely excluded from the process.

“ASEAN’s track record when it comes to human rights is not that good to start with," said Phil Robertson, the deputy director of the Asia division for New York-based Human Rights Watch. "They are basically having discussions in a closed room and then sort of peeking their head out the door and saying,'Do not worry, trust us, it will be fine.' We and ASEAN civil society groups are not prepared to make that leap of faith, based on the fact that ASEAN frequently has not lived up to its obligations on human rights.”

Robertson said a January draft of the document leaked to rights groups, contains worrisome evidence that some ASEAN countries are more concerned with economic, political and social concerns than respecting human rights.

ASEAN’s Human Rights Declaration is expected to be submitted for final approval during the next leaders’ summit, scheduled for November.

In brief comments Sunday, Thailand’s delegate to AICHR, Sriprapha Petcharamesree, said the document would conform to international human-rights standards.

“We will not accept any document which is lower than international standard, and this is shared by all other representatives,” said Sriprapha Petcharamesree.

ASEAN officials would not commit to releasing the entire draft declaration publicly. But Cambodian diplomat Kao Kim Hourn said parts of the draft would be made available.

“So right now, AICHR will have to come up with the key elements and those key elements will be released to the public,” said Kao Kim Hourn.

For the time being, human-rights issues will likely take a back seat to political concerns as the ministers' meetings get under way Monday. The issue of competing claims to the South China Sea remains a pressing concern, particularly with China’s presence at the summit. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is also expected to attend events later this week.

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