ASEAN’s declaration advances human rights in Asia

Author: Rodolfo C. Severino, ASEAN Studies Centre

Apparently lost in discussions of the ASEAN and other summits held in Phnom Penh last November was the adoption by leaders of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration.

This is a landmark ASEAN document that deserves to be taken more seriously than it has been thus far.

Some non-governmental groups concerned with human rights immediately attacked the declaration as undermining both the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which all ASEAN member states are now parties, and other ‘universal’ assertions of the rights of man.

This is an unnecessarily negative view of the ASEAN declaration. While there is nothing coercive in it, the declaration is clearly an advance from the previous situation, in which the only regional position on human rights was a joint communiqué issued by ASEAN foreign ministers in 1993 following a UN meeting on human rights. That laid down an initial common position on human rights, but the declaration issued in Phnom Penh goes much further.

Although hedged with many conditions (as are other instruments negotiated by several sovereign governments), the ASEAN declaration is remarkably realistic — and, because of those conditions, can be thought of as sincere. Unlike similar declarations, which states often cynically sign with no intention of carrying out, the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration recognises citizens’ obligations as well as rights, the importance of economic and social rights, and the diversity inherent in countries’ different backgrounds. In similar declarations, these considerations have not been acknowledged, even though they may have prevented individual states from immediately carrying out their commitments in similar regional declarations on human rights. The ASEAN declaration is upfront about the circumstances in different countries and says outright that they may stand in the way of the declaration’s provisions being fulfilled right away. These provisions also function as a warning against excessively high expectations.

Nevertheless, the ASEAN declaration indicates the member states’ aspirations and commitments in relation to the rights of their people. Now that they have been written down and agreed to, those aspirations and commitments can be invoked in the face of egregious violations of human rights. States will find it more difficult to backslide. Moreover, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights has to hold at least two meetings a year, one of which will be in the country of the ASEAN chair. In these meetings, ASEAN will have to talk about human rights and focus its attention on them.

The ASEAN Human Rights Declaration will advance the cause of human rights in Southeast Asia. People’s lives will not improve as a result of bluster and threats or by external intervention. Realism and quiet action is the better course.

Rodolfo C. Severino, a former ASEAN Secretary-General, is the head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. He is an adjunct professor in the LKY School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. The views expressed here are his own.

A version of this article was first published here in The Straits Times.