The heads of the 10-member Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Sunday night signed a human rights pact despite widespread criticism that the declaration falls short of international standards and offers governments a variety of loopholes.
The text of the declaration reaffirms the bloc’s support for political and civil rights, as well as economic and development rights for all of Southeast Asia’s 600 million citizens. It condemns torture, human trafficking, and arbitrary arrest and detention; and affirms each country’s support for the rights of women and condemnation of violence against women.
“It's a legacy for our children,” Philippines Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters after the signing the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD) at a ceremony in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.
Thai premier Yingluck Shinawatra referred to the pact as an “evolving process,” according to Thai daily The Bangkok Post.
However, alongside the ASEAN diplomats’ praise for what they call a “milestone” and a “benchmark” in regional affairs, rights experts have roundly criticized the AHRD.
Phil Robertson of New York-based Human Rights Watch said the non-binding element of the agreement may, in fact, be exploited by ASEAN governments “to justify violating rights.”
Referring to the ASEAN bloc as “an unwieldy bloc of liberal democracies and authoritarian states, The Associated Press reported on Sunday night that: “ASEAN has taken feeble steps to address human rights concerns in the vast region of 600 million people, adopting a charter in 2007 where it committed to uphold international law and human rights but retained a bedrock principle of not interfering in each other's internal affairs—a loophole that critics say helps member states commit abuses without consequence.
“In 2009, the group unveiled a commission that was tasked to promote human rights but deprived of power to investigate violations or go after abusers,” it said.
Activists say they are hoping that the AHRD’s defects are highlighted later this week when US President Obama attends the summit.