A document to ensure the human rights of over 600 million people across Southeast Asia is scheduled to be adopted in November, and Phnom Penh will host next month’s deliberations of the draft by ASEAN’s foreign ministers. The Jakarta Post compiled the following report ahead of the talks in Cambodia.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has largely been known as an organization of its leaders, but it has repeatedly stated its intention to become “one caring and sharing community”. For this purpose which, according to the ASEAN charter, is to be achieved by 2015, its Declaration on Human Rights is slated to be one of the foundations of this large community.

Earlier in 2009, ASEAN proudly announced the establishment of its Human Rights Commission at its 42nd ministerial meeting in Hua Hin, Thailand. One of its key mandates was to prepare a draft human rights declaration.

After a long process, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) has finalized the draft declaration to be submitted to the 45th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Phnom Penh in July. Cambodia, which holds the rotating chairmanship, wants the region’s first declaration on human rights to be approved at the ASEAN Summit in November.

The declaration will be one of the most important documents drafted since the adoption of the ASEAN Charter in 2007. However, the drafting process has been criticized for its lack of public participation, particularly by civil society organizations, who have been eager to participate from the beginning.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, called for a meaningful consultation on the draft with the widest spectrum of people in the region before presenting it to the ASEAN ministers’ gathering.

“The process through which this crucial declaration is adopted is almost as important as the content of the declaration itself,” Pillay said. She emphasized that engaging early in a transparent process of inclusive and meaningful consultation would help the drafting process acquire the status and popular support it deserved.

Critics say the intergovernmental commission should have ensured substantive consultation in the drafting process if ASEAN was to live up to its claim of being “people-oriented”.

Yuyun Wahyuningrum of the Human Rights Working Group (HRWG), an umbrella organization for dozens of Indonesian human rights NGOs, said the Commission had rejected activists’ requests to share the latest draft. “It’s a pity that they have blocked access to information relating the draft, which is so important and which will affect millions of people in Southeast Asia,” Yuyun said.

The Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy (ELSAM) also urged the commission to publicize and translate the draft so that the public could offer meaningful input.

Indonesia’s Permanent Representative to ASEAN, I Gede Ngurah Swajaya, denied that the commision worked in secrecy, adding that it used all available input. Dialogues with civil society groups were still possible before the upcoming summit in November, the ASEAN official said.

Despite the criticism from civil society groups, the chairman of the Human Rights Resource Center for ASEAN, Marzuki Darusman, remarked that the draft was “not bad” and noted some encouraging aspects.

Marzuki, the UN’s special rapporteur for human rights in North Korea, said fears that the declaration may be regionalist and watered-down from international standards were unfounded due to the draft’s reference to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Worries over a weak declaration, Marzuki said, came from experience in the 1990s when Malaysian, Singaporean and Indonesian leaders — PM Mahathir Mohamad, PM Lee Kuan Yew and President Soeharto, respectively — promoted “Asian values”, meaning that rights should be based on national, social and cultural contexts of Asian nations rather than on the indivisibility and universality of human rights.

“We don’t have to worry, since the draft has put the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the main source for the [ASEAN human rights] declaration, which is consistent with the spirit of the ASEAN Charter,” Marzuki said.

He acknowledged some phrases in the draft were debatable. One example is the general principle that mentions the balancing of human rights and freedoms with “responsibilites” to other individuals, community and society. While phrases linking freedoms and rights to responsibilities raise eyebrows among critics, Marzuki said the phrase implied more responsibility for states to create such conditions for their people so as to enjoy the fulfillment of human rights.

Marzuki said another encouraging development was the removal from the draft of the contentious phrase that read: “Community rights precede individual rights.” “It is a relief, as that term risked abuse,” he said.

Marzuki noted at least two crucial aspects that should be included in the draft. He said the draft should state that ASEAN would establish a convention of human rights, which would elaborate legal human rights norms. “With a directive in the declaration toward the establishment of a convention, we could see the evolution of human rights within ASEAN,” Marzuki said. Indonesia could take the lead, he added, by proposing that ASEAN produce a complete convention of human rights at the summit in November.

The other element still missing from the draft, according to Marzuki, was the fulfillment of human rights, which would stipulate member states’ responsibilities to fulfill these rights, apart from merely promoting and protecting them. If this could be included, he said, the ASEAN declaration would be even better than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which binds member states of the United Nations. — JP/Yohanna Ririhena, The Jakarta Post