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Hidden human rights

Sounds odd, don’t you think? Asean having a declaration on human rights? Not that many people know what’s in it since it’s been shrouded in secrecy. So you have a Human Rights Declaration that is in its final draft except that you, the human being, don’t know what’s in it. Well, some (a few given the millions in Asean) do. Some NGOs have been consulted and each Asean government has appointed a human rights commission to see to the draft. Appointed.

Too much publicity and transparency, says Asean sec-gen Surin Pitsuwan today, and you risk sinking the whole thing. The Philippines, Indonesians and the Thais have been “noisy” on the issue of transparency and there’s plenty of unhappiness over some of the terms. Human Rights Watch has weighed in. Amnesty International et al are asking for more consultation over the process and more “rights” to be included. (Yes, parts of the draft have been leaked)

Like how an early draft deals with the issue of rights and responsibility, and how these rights should be exercised within each country’s unique social, economic and political circumstances. One of the general principles says: “… the realization 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.”  NGOs contend that the state can justify human rights violations on any of these grounds…

As it is with all matters that are brought before Asean, it seems that the draft will be some lowest common denominator declaration that satisfies everyone but impresses no one.

NGOs note that the following isn’t in the draft…

.• Protection against enforced disappearances
• Clear and comprehensive protections for migrant workers
• Comprehensive protection for refugees, displaced persons and people with disabilities.
• Protection of people’s right to seek and to obtain asylum from persecution in other countries.
• Obligation of member nations to ensure that their laws, policies and practices conform with the declaration
• Comprehensive protection of indigenous peoples and traditional communities
• Protections to seek, receive and impart information through any media and regardless of international frontiers.
• Protection to meaningfully participate in all spheres of social and community life, including the political process, peace negotiations and decision-making in the public and the private spheres.
• Protection of political rights in elections.
• Protection of rights to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

Of course, it would be in some countries’ interest to have some clauses in; but not others. And in the Asean way, the draft makes it clear that no one country should intervene in the human rights issues of the other. This is not a declaration to “protect” human rights, but to “promote” it. Dr Surin thinks that just because the declaration is “aspirational”, it doesn’t mean it’s “hopeless”. From his experience, countries which sign up to this sort of thing will want at least keep their actions in line with the “language” articulated.

Today, a Cambodian spokesman was pressed on the issue of making the draft public. The concession: some elements will be made public “in the near future”. I don’t know how interested Singaporeans are in these “elements” – but they should be. And they should say what they think of it before it gets before the Asean summit in November and gets locked down for the ages.

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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