The United States is warning that the Association of SouthEast Asian Nations' recently adopted human rights declaration does not meet international standards and could be misused by repressive governments in the region.
Southeast Asian leaders on Sunday adopted the non-binding declaration with the aim of guaranteeing protections for the approximately 600 million people living in the 10-country regional bloc. ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan called the agreement a “major, major development,” saying countries in the region have now committed themselves “to the highest standards.”
But the U.S. State Department said Tuesday it was “deeply concerned” the declaration could “weaken and erode” long-standing principles enshrined in the United Nations's Universal Declaration on Human Rights. State spokesman Victoria Nuland decries what she calls the declaration's use of “'cultural relativism' to suggest that rights in the UDHR do not apply everywhere.”
At issue for many is Article Seven, which suggests that national or regional exceptions to the “realization of human rights” may be necessary on the basis of “political, economic, legal, social, cultural, historical and religious backgrounds.” Rights groups say the clause provides a loophole to authoritarian governments in the region, such as Vietnam or Cambodia, to get around the agreement.
Others are concerned that several basic rights and freedoms are missing from the declaration. A statement by a network of more than 50 human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, say freedom of association and freedom from forced disappearances are among the most glaring omissions.
The group's statement also laments that the process in drafting the declaration was “dictated by its member states with little meaningful consultation with the vast array of civil society and grassroots organizations” in the region. Civil society groups say, although an ASEAN committee was formed to create initial drafts, these were never released publicly, forcing many people to rely on leaked drafts or rumors.
That sentiment was echoed by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in a statement on Monday. But Pillay and others still hold out hope that the ASEAN declaration could eventually conform to international norms. In her statement, Pillay pointed to the evolution of other regional human rights systems, saying she was “confident this will be the same for ASEAN.”