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Southeast Asian leaders put on a good face about human rights

When the leaders of the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed a document committing them to uphold and protect human rights, they did so with a straight face -- despite the skepticism and misgivings their own people had of their ability or intention to live up to their promise.

The ASEAN Human Rights Declaration was one of the most important documents to emerge from their summit in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh on November 18. Even President Barack Obama, who joined the leaders a day later for the East Asia Summit, acknowledged the act as progress for the region, according to an ASEAN diplomat.

The declaration stipulates all the basic rights and freedoms one would expect, but is also filled with many exit clauses allowing the governments freedom in interpretation according to their national laws. This essentially meant that the document was not worth the cost of the paper it was written on. Human rights groups were quick to give it the thumbs down as soon as the declaration was signed.

ASEAN can hardly claim to be a role model when it comes to observing human rights. The group's members are a mixed bag of diverse political systems with checkered human rights records: from an absolute monarchy (Brunei), a military junta (Burma), and repressive communist states (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos), to semi-democracies (Singapore and Malaysia), and functioning (though at times struggling) democracies (Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia).

The ASEAN leaders meeting in Phnom Penh did not see the irony of signing a declaration with such noble values at a high-profile gathering when their own people are skeptical about their intentions. But, they've had plenty of practice keeping a straight face: In 2007, they signed an ASEAN Charter that also contains "shared values and principles" that supposedly bind them as a group and forged a plan to become a single community in 2015. These values were again stipulated in the blueprint for the ASEAN Political and Security Community in 2009. However, even with their mixed human rights records, the only thing the ASEAN governments share is that they all violate these laudable values and principles (some worse than others).

With less than three years before the 2015 launching, the state of affairs makes one wonder what kind of community will emerge when the people in the ten ASEAN countries are still governed under diverse systems underpinned by entirely different political values and principles.

Unlike the European Union, ASEAN adopts very loose membership criteria: As long as you are within the Southeast Asia geography, you're welcome to join. Contrast this with the stringent requirements of basic democracy and freedom that former communist Eastern European countries had to fulfill before they were admitted to the European Union.

With the ASEAN Charter stipulating that decisions must be made with the consensus of all members, it is guaranteed that ASEAN will always go for the lowest common denominator on just about every issue, including on the issues of human rights, democracy, and basic freedoms. The original white paper for the ASEAN Charter was a very bold and visionary document but it was severely watered down by the time it was presented for signing by leaders in Singapore in 2007.

Perhaps not wanting to repeat the controversy that accompanied the Charter deliberation, the public was virtually excluded from the process of the drafting of the Human Rights Declaration, until the final phase.

To dismiss the declaration as entirely worthless, however, may be going overboard a little. It joins other documents with noble causes that ASEAN people and civil society organizations can always invoke, demanding that their government to live up to the spirit and letter of their commitments. On the other hand, given the exit clauses, the governments can simply ignore them.

Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

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