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UN expresses concern as ASEAN considers its first human rights declaration

UN independent human rights experts on Friday expressed concern [press release] over the draft of the first ever Human Rights Declaration [text, PDF] of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) [official website]. ASEAN will consider the declaration at its summit in Phnom Penh in Cambodia on Sunday, where it is expected that the document will be adopted [Jakarta Post report]. The UN experts and others have expressed reservations that the declaration as drafted lacks protection for fundamental human rights [UN News Centre report; JURIST report] and that it leaves many provisions contingent upon domestic laws of its member nations. In an open letter [text, PDF] to ASEAN members states the UN experts noted that adoption of a human rights declaration would be a "significant step" for the organization, but it is "imperative" that when this happens the declaration be credible and in line with international standards. Director General for ASEAN Cooperation at the Foreign Ministry I Gusti Agung Wesaka Puja defended the declaration as a starting place to strengthen human rights protections, and noting that it is not an easy to garner consensus from all 10 member nations on such an issue.

ASEAN has long worked to reform countries in Southeast Asia, a region that is often criticized for many types of human rights violations. In April ASEAN agreed at its annual summit to strive to strengthen human rights protections [JURIST reoprt] for its member states [ASEAN info page]. In 2009 it established [JURIST report] its first human rights commission, the Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, to offer human rights education and device for government agencies, develop regional norms, collect information from member states and perform other tasks to promote adoption of higher human rights standards in its member nations. The commission was created during Thailand's chairmanship [JURIST report] of ASEAN that year and determination of the commission's potential powers caused controversy within the organization. It was determined early that the commission would not have the power to sanction member states for human rights violations.

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