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Cambodian people hold flags of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), banners and placards during a protest in front of the National Assembly building in Phnom Penh on November 16, 2012. US President Barack Obama is set to wade into the troubled waters of Asia's maritime disputes at a regional summit next week, with allies hoping for support in their efforts to contain China. AFP PHOTO/ TANG CHHIN SOTHY (Photo credit should read TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images

Protection of rights?

Mary Kozlovski, Phnom Penh
November 19, 2012

Southeast Asian leaders have adopted a contentious human rights declaration at a regional summit in Phnom Penh, amid criticisms that it does not meet international standards.


Leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed the non-binding regional declaration on Sunday in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, where they have gathered for a series of summits and bilateral meetings.

ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan had told reporters that the bloc was looking at the declaration "as a progression."

"We have come a long way on the human rights agenda," he said. "We are looking at it in a long timeframe."

'Justification for human rights violations'

While officials hailed the declaration as an important step, civil society groups continued to voice concern about certain provisions.

Critics have highlighted passages that say human rights must be considered in the regional and national context, must be balanced with duties and will be subject to considerations including the "just requirements" of national security, public order and public morality, among others.

Heavily-armed Cambodian police special force officers stands guard in front of the Peace Palace ahead of the 21st of ASEAN Summit (Photo: AP/Vincent Thian)
ASEAN leaders met ahead of the summit at Phnom Penh's Peace Palace on November 17Image: dapd

Over 50 civil society groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, said in a joint statement on Monday that the declaration would provide justifications for human rights violations.

"The document is a declaration of government powers disguised as a declaration of human rights," the statement said. "We will not use it in our work as groups engaged in the protection of human rights in the region."

Civil society groups have also complained that they were largely excluded from the drafting process.

Yuval Ginbar, a legal adviser for Amnesty International, told DW that some of the general principles in the declaration "cast a shadow" over its listed rights by subjecting them to unacceptable constraints.

"It provides governments with escape clauses from any commitment that the declaration may otherwise impose," he said, adding that in its current form, the declaration was not a step forward.

"Basically, they can respect human rights but at the same time they can violate them according to the declaration, for a variety of reasons that give them too much power."

ASEAN includes Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Brunei, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. Cambodia is ASEAN chair for 2012.

Rights on US agenda

Meanwhile, newly re-elected US President Barack Obama arrived in Phnom Penh in the early evening on Monday to take part in the US-ASEAN summit, along with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

In remarks sent out by the White House, Samantha Power, Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights on the US National Security Council, told reporters that the US' bilateral message to Cambodia related to human rights abuses being committed in the country. She said the US would urge Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to take such concerns seriously rather than "continuing to move in very worrying directions."

US President Barack Obama, fifth from left, stands hand in hand with ASEAN leaders for a family photo during the ASEAN-US leaders' meeting at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, Nov. 19, 2012. (Photo:Carolyn Kaster/AP/dapd)
Barack Obama is the first sitting US president to visit Cambodia and MyanmarImage: dapd

Obama is the first sitting US President to visit Cambodia and Myanmar. He arrived in Phnom Penh from Yangon, where he had met with President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Surin Pitsuwan told reporters on Sunday that Thein Sein had briefed ASEAN leaders about the situation in Myanmar's western Rakhine state.

Violence between Buddhists and Muslims has erupted in Rakhine in recent months, causing dozens of deaths and displacing thousands of people.

"ASEAN is concerned that the issue may flare up again and spill over, and the risk of extremism is very much there," Surin said.

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