On November 17 and 18, 2012 the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) met in Phnom Penh, Cambodia to review and adopt the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD).
Both the process of drafting and the language of the Declaration have been plagued with criticism by civil society groups in the ASEAN region as well as by the United Nations. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, said, "This is not the hallmark of the democratic global governance to which ASEAN aspires, and it will only serve to undermine the respect and ownership that such an important declaration deserves."
According to the latest revised version of the Declaration obtained by the Bangkok Post, the preamble has been edited to appease critics. The revision read, "ASEAN reaffirms further our commitment to ensure that the implementation of the AHRD be in accordance with our commitment to the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action, and other international human rights instruments to which ASEAN member states are parties, as well as to relevant ASEAN declarations and instruments pertaining to human rights."
While this is an important improvement, the draft is still under wraps from public view, which has been the standard operating procedure of AICHR. From the very start, the ASEAN Commission has consistently avoided open and transparent communication with civil society groups.
A coalition of more than 65 national, regional and international civil society groups, including the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) and representatives of the ASEAN LGBTIQ Caucus continue to condemn the failure of the Declaration to meet international human rights standards. Led by the Southeast Asian Committee for Advocacy (SEACA) and Forum Asia , the coalition's strongly worded civil society statement released on November 19, 2012 blasts the ASEAN governments for failing to measure up "despite last minute amendments" to the Declaration, saying, "[the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration] undermines, rather than affirms, international human rights law and standards. The document is a declaration of government powers disguised as a declaration of human rights. It is deplorable that the governments of ASEAN have insisted on making a Declaration that implies that their people are less deserving of human rights than the people of Europe, Africa or the Americas. The people of ASEAN should never accept a lower level of protection of their human rights than the rest of the world."
The civil society coalition has rejected the Declaration, saying, "This Declaration is not worthy of its name. We therefore reject it. We will not use it in our work as groups engaged in the protection of human rights in the region. We will not invoke it in addressing ASEAN or ASEAN member states, except to condemn it as an anti-human rights instrument. We will continue to rely on international human rights law and standards, which, unlike the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, provide all individuals, groups and peoples in ASEAN with the freedoms and protections to which they are entitled."
On November 16, 2012, the ASEAN Grassroots People's Assembly marched in front of the Cambodia Parliament House in Phnom Penh to submit recommendations from civil society to the members of the Cambodian Parliament -- Cambodia is the current ASEAN chair. The assembly was made up of advocates for civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, many of whom are members of grassroots organizations working toward a common goal: a broadly inclusive Human Rights Declaration.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) people were among the marchers carrying rainbow banners and placards, supporting the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) proclaiming, "No SOGI in the AHRD is Discrimination" and "LGBT rights are human rights!" The ASEAN LGBTIQ Caucus media statement said, "No mention of SOGI, sends a clear message that the human rights of LGBTIQ people are irrelevant... The priority of this Declaration is not human rights, but economic and political interests of the ASEAN states at the expense of the ASEAN peoples."
What's phenomenal is not the behavior or positioning of the ASEAN governments or the representatives tasked with drafting the declaration, but the solidarity of civil society groups who have not bargained away the rights of some groups in exchange for political strategy and expediency. For the first time in Southeast Asia, those working for the human rights of women, indigenous people, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, migrant workers, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable populations are working together. This is a remarkable advance in coalition.
On the other hand, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission for Human Rights has chosen to lower the bar in order to skate by on their human rights obligations, putting in place loopholes that give governments a way out of meeting human rights standards.
Until recently, Asia was falling behind other regions of the world in not having its own human rights body. This first-ever ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights was a missed opportunity to reflect and embrace advances in protections for all people.
Now, it is a new time: people are coming together despite their differences. Given that AICHR has said this is a people-centric declaration, it begs the question: Just how people-centric will the implementation of the ASEAN Declaration be when the language of the Declaration compromises on state's obligations?
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