Observing human rights, the ASEAN way

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Politicians at the 21st ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh © Justin Calderon

Arriving back in Bangkok after covering the 21st ASEAN Summit and East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh for four days, I am left pondering some of the more overlooked outcomes of the international event in which media has by and large used to amplify disputes in the South China Sea.

If Beijing and ASEAN leaders had hoped to employ idiosyncratic pragmatic policies to force focus on economic issues, they might be feeling a bit disheartened in what has come to be. Instead, less headline-grabbing topics revolving around economic integration were greatly overshadowed by Obama’s two historic visits to Myanmar and Cambodia, the latter of which he made no public appearances and used to address the less-than-favourable human rights record within.

This is a highly pertinent move as the summit saw the adoption of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration by the leaders of the 10 member states, the first stepping-stone on the road to a legally binding treaty. It should be noted that this is a merely a declaration, which carries no legal obligations but signifies moral commitment, compared to more weighty convention.

If the declaration’s gestation period can be said to have been troubled, then its birthing was equally problematic.

The drafting process came under fierce scrutiny from international organisations and civil society because of its lack of transparency, a “closed door” policy that subsequently lead UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay to say that “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.”

Using much more barbed language, Human Rights Watch described the drafting process as a “full-blown train wreck.” Though the ASEAN Secretariat has issued statements that the declaration embodies the best interpretations of international human rights, it still falls short of American, European and even African instruments. In fact, the bloc has long been critised for their lack of initiative to streamline the development of such a document.

The largest concerns over the declaration concern the use of “weasel” words that blur interpretation and effectively allow governments to escape human rights obligations.

Noticeably, Principle 6 in the declaration states that the enjoyment of human rights have to be “balanced with the performance of corresponding duties,” implying that this is a conditional right dependent on society to uphold being a “good” citizen.

Principle 2 establishes freedom from discrimination on a number of grounds, including “race, gender, age, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, economic status, birth, disability or other status.” However, the principle noticeably excludes protection regarding sexual orientation and gender identity, though they could theoretically be covered by the term “other status.” This falls in line with the views of Malaysia, whose Prime Minister, Najib Abdul Tun Razak, has stated that Malaysia does not support rights for gay, lesbian and transgendered groups.

Principle 7 offers a loophole for governments to escape upholding human rights by stating that “the realisation of human rights must be considered in the regional and national context bearing in mind different political, economic, legal, social, cultural, historical and religious backgrounds.” In addition, human rights can be relinquished on a variety of grounds, including “national security”, “public order” and “public morality”.

That several contentious human rights issues currently ensuing in ASEAN are revolve around the exact topics addressed in the declaration makes the photo-op as hypocritical as it is comical.

Though leaders have guaranteed the rights of asylum seekers, freedom from religious persecution and the right to property, Burmese refugees are still being exploited in Malaysia in abject servitude without nationality, Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar face genocide by the hands of Buddhists and land concessions without compensation continue to be the hallmark of policies to develop Cambodia’s agricultural economy.

Says the “strongman”

Obama raised the observation of human rights to long-time autocrat President Hun Sen, known by the laudatory title of “strongman,” during a meeting at the summit that has been described by US aides as being “tense.” It remains unclear if Cambodia will make any conciliatory gestures to address a dismal situation that rights groups have called a “downward spiral.”

“In particular I would say the need for them to move towards elections that are fair and free, the need for an independent election commission associated with those elections, the need to allow for the release of political prisoners, and for opposition parties to be able to operate,” Ben Rhodes, US Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, told reporters.

On November 18, just one day before receiving President Obama, Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released an accusatory statement aimed at media claiming unfair and unjust reporting.

The statement announced that “Cambodia guarantees that there will be free and fair elections next year, with the participation of thousands of both national and international electoral observers.”

This should be taken with a bucket of salt, as Hun Sen has been in power since Ronald Reagan and is likely continue being cozy in his position of power.

“It’s better than nothing at least,” a Cambodian photographer said looking at the press release.

The same can be said for the new declaration on human rights. This is the ASEAN way.

Do you like this post?
  • Fascinated
  • Happy
  • Sad
  • Angry
  • Bored
  • Afraid

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Politicians at the 21st ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh © Justin Calderon

Arriving back in Bangkok after covering the 21st ASEAN Summit and East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh for four days, I am left pondering some of the more overlooked outcomes of the international event in which media has by and large used to amplify disputes in the South China Sea.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Politicians at the 21st ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh © Justin Calderon

Arriving back in Bangkok after covering the 21st ASEAN Summit and East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh for four days, I am left pondering some of the more overlooked outcomes of the international event in which media has by and large used to amplify disputes in the South China Sea.

If Beijing and ASEAN leaders had hoped to employ idiosyncratic pragmatic policies to force focus on economic issues, they might be feeling a bit disheartened in what has come to be. Instead, less headline-grabbing topics revolving around economic integration were greatly overshadowed by Obama’s two historic visits to Myanmar and Cambodia, the latter of which he made no public appearances and used to address the less-than-favourable human rights record within.

This is a highly pertinent move as the summit saw the adoption of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration by the leaders of the 10 member states, the first stepping-stone on the road to a legally binding treaty. It should be noted that this is a merely a declaration, which carries no legal obligations but signifies moral commitment, compared to more weighty convention.

If the declaration’s gestation period can be said to have been troubled, then its birthing was equally problematic.

The drafting process came under fierce scrutiny from international organisations and civil society because of its lack of transparency, a “closed door” policy that subsequently lead UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay to say that “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.”

Using much more barbed language, Human Rights Watch described the drafting process as a “full-blown train wreck.” Though the ASEAN Secretariat has issued statements that the declaration embodies the best interpretations of international human rights, it still falls short of American, European and even African instruments. In fact, the bloc has long been critised for their lack of initiative to streamline the development of such a document.

The largest concerns over the declaration concern the use of “weasel” words that blur interpretation and effectively allow governments to escape human rights obligations.

Noticeably, Principle 6 in the declaration states that the enjoyment of human rights have to be “balanced with the performance of corresponding duties,” implying that this is a conditional right dependent on society to uphold being a “good” citizen.

Principle 2 establishes freedom from discrimination on a number of grounds, including “race, gender, age, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, economic status, birth, disability or other status.” However, the principle noticeably excludes protection regarding sexual orientation and gender identity, though they could theoretically be covered by the term “other status.” This falls in line with the views of Malaysia, whose Prime Minister, Najib Abdul Tun Razak, has stated that Malaysia does not support rights for gay, lesbian and transgendered groups.

Principle 7 offers a loophole for governments to escape upholding human rights by stating that “the realisation of human rights must be considered in the regional and national context bearing in mind different political, economic, legal, social, cultural, historical and religious backgrounds.” In addition, human rights can be relinquished on a variety of grounds, including “national security”, “public order” and “public morality”.

That several contentious human rights issues currently ensuing in ASEAN are revolve around the exact topics addressed in the declaration makes the photo-op as hypocritical as it is comical.

Though leaders have guaranteed the rights of asylum seekers, freedom from religious persecution and the right to property, Burmese refugees are still being exploited in Malaysia in abject servitude without nationality, Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar face genocide by the hands of Buddhists and land concessions without compensation continue to be the hallmark of policies to develop Cambodia’s agricultural economy.

Says the “strongman”

Obama raised the observation of human rights to long-time autocrat President Hun Sen, known by the laudatory title of “strongman,” during a meeting at the summit that has been described by US aides as being “tense.” It remains unclear if Cambodia will make any conciliatory gestures to address a dismal situation that rights groups have called a “downward spiral.”

“In particular I would say the need for them to move towards elections that are fair and free, the need for an independent election commission associated with those elections, the need to allow for the release of political prisoners, and for opposition parties to be able to operate,” Ben Rhodes, US Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, told reporters.

On November 18, just one day before receiving President Obama, Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released an accusatory statement aimed at media claiming unfair and unjust reporting.

The statement announced that “Cambodia guarantees that there will be free and fair elections next year, with the participation of thousands of both national and international electoral observers.”

This should be taken with a bucket of salt, as Hun Sen has been in power since Ronald Reagan and is likely continue being cozy in his position of power.

“It’s better than nothing at least,” a Cambodian photographer said looking at the press release.

The same can be said for the new declaration on human rights. This is the ASEAN way.

Do you like this post?
  • Fascinated
  • Happy
  • Sad
  • Angry
  • Bored
  • Afraid