2013 Feb 05
February 5, 2013

Asean’s Magna Carta a miracle

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BENEFITS FOR ALL: Human Rights Declaration is one small step for group and one giant step for humanity

THE Asean Human Rights Declaration, signed by Asean’s 10 heads of state last November, is a slender document with sections on general principles, civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, development, peace, and international cooperation in the promotion and protection of human rights.

Nothing like this Magna Carta has ever been adopted by any country or by any other legal bloc in the region.

The Asian values debate of the 1990s and the spectre of cultural relativism have been laid to rest. And the rights and principles that have been enshrined in the declaration reveal Asean’s political will to level the playing field in international politics.

This human rights project offers novel and delicate notions on the right to peace and development and a clarion call for sovereign respect and equality in international cooperation. One iconic feature is Asean’s imprimatur on the universality of the international human rights regime.

As a member of the Philippine delegation for the drafting of the declaration, I observed that the longest and thorniest debates during the negotiations revolved around the word “regional particularities”.

It was a joust between adopting the same paragraph in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action in 1993, from which the phrase originates, drafting a modified version that would alter the paragraph, except for that phrase, or removing the word “particularities” in an absolute and final way.

The result was a new article: “All human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. All human rights and fundamental freedoms in this Declaration must be treated in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing and with the same emphasis.

“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.” (Article 7)

“Particularities” was purged, putting on record Asean’s consensus for an effective end to pretexts for selectivity, including partiality and forms of discrimination or double standards not only amongst member states but also between them and detractors in the West who would use rights talk in the service of self-interest.

It was agreed that Article 7 must, henceforth, 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 the respect for the rich socio-cultural diversities of the member states and their national traditions.

It serves to remind the international community to be sensitive to the 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 the heads of state on the adoption of the declaration states 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 Programme of Action, and other international human rights instruments to which Asean Member States are parties, as well as to relevant Asean declarations and instruments pertaining to human rights”, lest the declaration lends itself to tangential interpretations of would-be authoritarians.

Asean has been criticised from within and outside for the lack of an effective voting system.

But the spirit of compromise and consensus played out consistently, and quite painfully, throughout the entire drafting process and especially in the negotiation of article 7.

Notwithstanding hard and intractable positions, the 10 representatives of the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights invoked the ground rule to drop any issue when one or more states were in absolute disagreement. It was the double-edged sword.

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.

At a series of retreats, the framers, who were ultimately responsible for every word in the declaration, negotiated away from the public eye, combining the requirements of confidentiality (not secrecy) and of saving face in Southeast Asian ethos.

Such 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. Jakarta Post

Read more: Asean’s Magna Carta a miracle – Columnist – New Straits Times http://www.nst.com.my/opinion/columnist/asean-s-magna-carta-a-miracle-1.213128#ixzz2K5i0jtjA