Civil society groups in ASEAN have expressed disappointment over the content and process of the first-ever ASEAN human rights declaration, which aims to ensure human rights protection for 600 million people in the region.

Yuyun Wahyuningrum, senior advisor on ASEAN and Human Rights at the Human Rights Working Groups (HRWG), which represents more than 50 human rights groups in Indonesia, said that the draft did not reflect the universal values that ASEAN pledged to uphold.

“We are disappointed over the content and drafting process, which lacks transparency. Up to now, the document has not been shared with the public. This is not best practice,” Yuyun told The Jakarta Post.

ASEAN established its human rights body, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) in 2009, with one of its key mandates to prepare a draft of the ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights (ADHR).

The declaration, expected to be adopted during the ASEAN Summit from Nov. 18-20, will be a momentous step in the association’s 45-year-old history.

Civil society groups are especially concerned about the many terms and articles, like “public morality” and “national and regional particularity”, in articles six, seven and eight of the general principles.

Yuyun said that the three detrimental articles undermined the ADHR, making it a watered-down version of universal values. A number of articles in the draft suggested the declaration had become too much about negotiating the national interests of various ASEAN states rather than about improving human rights, she added.

Civil society groups gathered in Phnom Penh last week argued that time was running out to rid the proposed draft of clauses that would restrict peoples’ rights rather than protecting and enhancing them.

Nay Vanda, deputy head of the monitoring section of rights group Adhoc in Cambodia, said civil society groups needed more opportunities to consult with leaders on the wording of the declaration. “The [declaration] can be a success for the government […] if it is equal or higher than [the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights]. If it is lower, it can ruin the reputation of Cambodia.”

The drafting process has also been criticized for a lack of transparency. “From the beginning, the draft has not been shared. So, it is difficult for us to make a comment and discuss it with the UN. How can we comment if we don’t have the draft?” Yuyun complained.

The only glimpse the public and civil society groups have had of the proposed declaration was by way of a leaked document.

International relations expert Dwi Ardhanariswari Sundrijo of University of Indonesia argued that ASEAN had a true intention to engage people in regionalism, but this applied mostly to social cultural aspects. For issues related to state sovereignty, security, stability and other traditional issues, ASEAN governments were reluctant to engage civil society widely.

“ASEAN is not ready yet. It could be understood since democracy has not well established throughout ASEAN member states.”

ASEAN member-states have been divided in wording the draft.

Cambodia wanted to ensure that the draft was approved during the summit. As chair of ASEAN this year, Cambodia does not want a second failure. Cancelling the adoption would mean a second failure for Phnom Penh after the failure to issue a joint communiqué at the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in July.

Despite the draft being undoubtedly substandard, Yuyun said time was running out to delay the adoption. She suggested that ASEAN establish a team of experts to give interpretations article by article and to explain some legal term. –Yohanna Ririhena, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta