ASEAN’s ‘Magna Carta’ universalises human rights

Author: Kevin H.R. Villanueva, University of Leeds

On 18 November 2012, the 10 ASEAN heads of state signed the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration — a kind of Asian magna carta.

What does this landmark declaration symbolise? The ‘Asian Values’ debate of the 1990s and the spectre of cultural relativism have now finally been laid to rest. Does this also mean, however, the demise of ‘Asian’ values? What is certain is that the rights and principles that have been enshrined in the Declaration reveal the political will of ASEAN to level the playing field in international politics.

Between January and September 2012, the 10 representatives of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights met 10 times, in seven different cities around Southeast Asia, to give shape to the human rights project. The document sets out novel and delicate notions on the right to peace and development and is a clarion call for sovereign respect and equality in international cooperation. But most importantly, the Declaration is autochthonous, which means it is capable of stamping ASEAN’s imprimatur on the international human rights regime.

The longest and thorniest debates during the negotiations revolved around whether ASEAN should adopt the phrase ‘regional particularities’ as it was used in Article 5 of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action.

The negotiators eventually decided on a new article instead — Article 7, which reads:

‘All human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated … At the same time, 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’.

‘Particularities’ was purged, putting on record the ASEAN preference for an end to pretexts for the selectivity, partiality, forms of discrimination or double standards that occur when member states or detractors in the West talk about rights in the service of self-interest. It was agreed that Article 7 must never be interpreted as diminishing the universality of human rights or in a manner that would undermine the principles protected in the Declaration.

The provision also maintains respect for the rich socio-cultural diversities of member states and their national traditions. It reminds the international community to be sensitive to the specific needs and desires of national constituencies — but to be critical and steadfast against local practices that violate human dignity.

It is unfortunate that in the past understandings of ‘backgrounds’ tended to emphasise national over regional contexts. Notions of ‘particularities’ have thus to this day, inadvertently, been on the basis of national differences rather than on shared regional practices.

The Phnom Penh Statement by heads of state on the adoption of the Declaration explicitly stated that the implementation of human rights must be ‘in accordance to the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action’, lest the Declaration lend itself to the tangential interpretations of would-be authoritarians.

The deliberations over this document showed the ideal of ASEAN regional solidarity. The organisation has been criticised from within and outside for its lack of an effective voting system. But the spirit of compromise and consensus played out consistently — and quite painfully — throughout the drafting process and especially in the negotiation of Article 7. Once it was clear two or more countries had opposite and intractable positions on an issue, the representatives invoked the ground rule to drop it. Between the benefits of avoiding neighbourly conflict or those of an agreement, the pre-eminent principle for political expediency held sway: one for all — and all for one.

Furthermore, consistent with ASEAN informality, the representatives also convened a series of retreats in the course of the negotiations. ASEAN officials, ministers and bureaucrats agreed that protocol must give way to straight and intimate talk. The retreats were relaxed, familial and unceremonious, and meant the framers could negotiate away from the public eye. It also guaranteed confidentiality (though not secrecy), and ensured the negotiators could save face.

These ideals and values are unique to ASEAN, but they lean undeniably on the principles of the modern state system in large measure. Indeed, we can choose to be cynical and look only at the staying power of the state and how often it falters in protecting the rights and freedoms of peoples and individuals, women and men. But we can also choose to look differently at this Declaration: one small step for ASEAN, one giant leap for humanity. The reverse is no less true: one small step for humanity, one giant leap for ASEAN. It is no small miracle that we now all stand to benefit either way.

Kevin H.R. Villanueva was a member of the Philippine Delegation to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights for the drafting of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. He is a University Research Scholar in Politics and International Studies and East Asian Studies at the University of Leeds.

A version of this article was first published here in the Jakarta Post.

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