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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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What Uganda can do to end the crisis in Congo

Last week the UN finally released a controversial report that accuses Uganda and Rwanda of supporting rebels in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). When a leaked version of the report first appeared in October, Uganda's Army spokesperson, Felix Kulayigye dismissed it: "It's hogwash, it's a mere rumor that's being taken as a report," he told Radio France Internationale. "It's undermining the credibility of the mediator which is Uganda, and when you undermine the credibility of the mediator you are actually undermining the entire process."

The Wall Street Journal reported that Uganda has threatened to respond to the charges by withdrawing from its African peacekeeping missions in the DRC, Somalia, and the Central African Republic.

The paper quoted the Ugandan Foreign Ministry as follows: "Uganda's withdrawal from regional peace efforts, including Somalia... would become inevitable unless the U.N. corrects the false accusations made against Uganda." In addition, a delegation of Ugandan officials held talks with individual members of the UN Security Council in early November to protest the allegations in the UN report.

In May, Aljazeera's Nazanine Moshiri visited a base of the M23 rebel movement in eastern DRC near the Rwandan border. The rebels told her that they were fighting because the Congolese government had failed to meet its obligations outlined in the peace accords.

Later in July, the rebels vowed to take over Goma if the government failed to respond to their demands.

The final report was launched a day after the M23 rebel group captured the eastern city of Goma from government forces, making good of a threat made mid in the year. Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times writes of rising anti-government fury in the DRC following the rebel victory.

According to Aljazeera, the M23's full name is the March 23 Movement, which refers to the date in 2009 when a peace agreement was reached between the Democratic Republic of Congo government and the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), a rebel militia comprised mostly of ethnic Tutsis. "Under the accords," Aljazeera says, "former CNDP fighters were supposed to have been integrated into the national army. But some of them say they were not treated fairly, and that the peace treaty was never fully put into effect -- ostensibly the reason they defected from the army and formed the M23 movement."

The Guardian's Pete Jones and David Smith, reporting from the DRC, write that, while the M23 rebels are disciplined and well-equipped, the Congolese army is losing both the image and military war. The rebels deny getting aid from Rwanda to support their cause. However, they quote residents in their article who are unhappy with the rebels.

... However, several local residents painted a less rosy picture of life under M23. A 31-year-old teacher said: "We are forced to live with them, whatever our hearts. How can you support someone when you don't know their objectives? Even a child can tell you they are supported by Rwanda. Everyone knows."

A 27-year-old farmer, with a baby tied to her back, accused M23 of forcing her to bring produce to its warehouses then failing to pay for it. "They also come during the night," she said. "They knock and if you don't open because you are afraid, they force the door or shoot with weapons.

"Then they fill their vehicles with food. When you are crying and ask for help from the police, they don't come to help. When you go the fields and soldiers come, you have to pray."

The woman added: "God will not accept M23 because we are suffering so much. If they took the whole country, nobody will be able to speak. We will live like slaves."

Since the Wednesday capture of the key town of Goma, government representatives of the DRC, Uganda, and Rwanda held a press conference in Kampala demanding the M23 rebels leave Goma immediately.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni spoke confidently of the rebels leaving the area: "No matter how far they have advanced we are going to ask them to withdraw. I can assure you they will go back."

The International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), to which the DRC, Uganda, and Rwanda belong, held a crisis summit in Kampala over the weekend to help resolve the escalating crisis. (The photo above shows Museveni, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, and DRC President Joseph Kabila in Kampala on Nov. 21.)

The leaders gave the rebels 48 hours to withdraw from Goma and start negotiations with the government. As of today, the Daily Monitor reports that the rebels have agreed to the withdrawal, following the Monday deadline. The Ugandan paper Red Pepper reports that General Aronda Nyakairima, Uganda's Chief of Defense Forces, has been tasked with coordinating M23's withdrawal.

The U.S. ambassador to Uganda, Scott De Lisi, acknowledged Uganda's important role in maintaining peace in the region. The New Vision reports that when asked about the controversial UN report, De Lisi "maintained that it was important that Uganda be heard before a final position is reached." The paper further noted that Uganda had denounced the report as false and threatened to pull out of all regional peace initiatives.

However, Uganda's participation in the current crisis talks shows a commitment to resolve the region's problems. Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan president, is the current chairman of the ICGLR, and ensuring a peaceful negotiation to the crisis in Congo falls under his docket.

Pulling out of the peace-keeping missions would be a detrimental move for the region as a whole. The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), which inflicted untold suffering on northern Uganda for so many years, is still prowling the forests of the Central African Republic (CAR) and Democratic Republic of Congo.

Uganda has supplied many of the troops for a joint army operation with the CAR and DRC to hunt down the LRA rebels, who have been operating in both of those countries.

Because the LRA started its campaign of terror in Uganda, it is the responsibility of the Ugandan government to continue the hunt for the LRA rebels until the conflict is over. Withdrawing troops from this hunt would make the Ugandan government complicit in the suffering of its neighbors. And that, in turn, would fuel continued turmoil in the DRC and prompt even more Congolese to flee their homes. So let's hope that the government in Kampala doesn't make good on its threat.

The Eastern DRC has been plagued by several wars, and Uganda's involvement in this country dates to the mid-1990s, when both Uganda and Rwanda propped up the late Laurent Kabila in power. The two countries have since continued to play a big role in the politics of that country.

Jackee's twitter handle is @jackeebatanda

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