MANILA, Philippines — Nongovernmental organizations on Thursday rejected the draft of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration they were shown for consultation and which is set for ratification by the regional bloc’s 10 member-states at their summit in Cambodia this November.

Sixty-two representatives from 54 NGOs based in members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, loosely organized as the Civil Society Forum on ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, met in Manila September 10-11 in Manila ahead of their consultation with the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights on September 12.

Cynthia Gabriel, of Malaysia’s Suaram, called the draft as it is currently worded a failure.

“Equality and non-discrimination must be the cornerstone of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. Anything less than that is a failure,” she said.

At a press conference, the CSO Forum participants gave their reasons for rejecting the draft and presented their proposed amendments:

1. The draft is below the standard set by current international laws on human rights, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Several provisions, including those in the “General Principles,” impose “overarching limitations and conditionality in the enjoyment of rights.”

All human beings are entitled to the same set of human rights, regardless of class, gender, ethnicity, and other categorizations, said Dr. Aurora Parong, of Amnesty International. But the draft declaration puts a limit to the enjoyment of these rights on issues of “national and regional contexts,” “different cultural, religious, and historical backgrounds,” “public morality,” and “balanced with the performance of duties.”

If the draft puts a limit to these rights, then it is below the standards set by the UDHR, Parong said.

The NGOs proposed that these provisions be removed and replaced with a provision that “upholds the universality and inalienability of human rights and the non-derogability of fundamental rights.”

The right to liberty is a derogable right, meaning a person’s right to liberty may be limited if he is proven to commit some crime, Parong explained, but the right not to be tortured and to be enslaved are non-derogable rights, meaning nothing limits these rights.

2. The process of consultation has not been transparent and inclusive from the start.

Ging Cristobal, of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, said the AICHR process has lacked transparency — from the selection of representatives to the body, to consultations on the draft and the criteria of who would be invited to the consultations, and how AICHR representatives vote.

The AICHR limited the participation of some NGOs, including freedom of expression advocate Southeast Asian Press Alliance, AIDP (an organization advocating for the rights of indigenous people), and Forum Asia.

Yap Swee Seng of Forum Asia said that in the two consultations, the AICHR limited the participation of NGOs to four organizations per country.

“It is unfortunate that this is happening in this regional human rights forum. CSOs (civil society organizations) are advocating for transparency and open participatory process of all AICHR work. We want the draft declaration made public. We want the people’s right to know and right to participate in the process actualized in this process,” Yap said.

“We continue to press ASEAN governments and the AICHR for more open and transparent engagements with NGOs,” he added.

Parong said that at Wednesday’s consultation, no NGO from Myanmar was represented.

She also said that, initially, the NGOs were not given any drafts, only elements of the declaration. The current draft was given only to NGOs from the Philippines and Thailand.

In the June consultation, the AICHR received the NGOs’ recommendations with a “blank face,” said Cristobal. “There is no validation of CSO partnership. There is no equal partnership. We are always begging from our end.”

Parong also said a translation of the draft into the many ASEAN languages is a step towards allowing people’s participation. Without these translations, people would be “deprived of the right to respond to the draft. The declaration should reflect the voices of the people, not just the governments’,” she added.

3. Some marginalized sectors such as children, women, indigenous peoples, and migrant workers are not explicitly protected by the draft declaration.

The Universal Declaration on Human Rights is 62 years old and since then the international community has adopted other international conventions that have enriched the concept of human rights, such as the International Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.

Parong reminded the AICHR that all 10 ASEAN member-countries are signatories to these and other similar conventions and cannot use the ASEAN Declaration on Human Rights to circumvent their commitments there.

This is why, Parong said, the draft declaration must provide specific provisions for the protection of these specific groups.

At the consultation, Cristobal said AICHR members seem “to have made up their minds that sexual orientation and gender identity (as criteria for discrimination) have no place in the declaration.”

The AICHR “overlooks the violence, discrimination, and even death that the LGBTs (lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transsexuals) experience from state and non-state actors,” she said.

Some AICHR members cite religion and culture as bases for denying LGBTs their rights, and say their sexual orientation and gender identity are abnormal.

“Even the World Health Organization has disputed this,” Cristobal said.

“We are not asking for special rights. We are only claiming our basic human rights,” she said, adding that of the 10 ASEAN member-countries, only Indonesia, Philippines, and Thailand have been supportive of LGBT rights.

Non-discrimination, non-violence, and equal protection are crucial for future of ASEAN, Cristobal added.

4. The provisions of the draft are vague and weak on key human rights issues like enforced disappearances.

The history of many ASEAN member-countries is replete with gross human rights violations, including enforced disappearances. Thousands of HR defenders and activists have involuntary disappeared, Parong said, and the declaration must send a strong message against similar occurrences in the future.

Atnike Sigiro, of Indonesia’s Commission for the Disappearances and Victims of Violence or Kontras, created in 1998 when the military kidnapped many activists, said this issue has been raised in the June consultation in Kuala Lumpur but the current draft still does not contain this particular concern.

Enforced disappearances “violate not only the rights of the arrested, but also their relatives’,” Sigiro said.

5. The draft does not reflect the concerns of the people of ASEAN.

The formation of an economic bloc was the primary rationale of ASEAN, noted Malaysia’s Cynthia Gabriel. “And the people’s economic, social, and civil rights must be upheld, not derogated in context of economic globalization,” she said. “The declaration must be reflective of the needs and desires of the people.”

These include the right to work, right to sustainable environment (in the context of development), and right to social security (in the context of developing nations), she added.

Given the wide spectrum of development in ASEAN — from developed Singapore to developing Myanmar, the declaration must cover every citizen’s right to development, and specifically right to sustainable development.

“This right cannot be taken away because of lack of development,” she said.

Gabriel said she is hopeful that the declaration would finally reflect the people’s concerns. –Veronica Uy,