What the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) promulgated through the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD) is far from being the ideal common goal for better respect and protection for human rights. This should not turn to be a surprise since the AHRD reflects perfectly the downsides of ASEAN as a regional organization: there is no such thing as something ‘universal’, because for ASEAN, each country’s sovereignty tops even the regional organization itself.
Take an example of General Principle no. 11, which is considerably an oxymoron: that a person’s right to life is protected by law, and that law may justify the derogation of the same right. This single principle warrants that there is no such thing as a universal, let alone non-derogable right, in which the law, created by human beings, has the power to limit another human being’s right of life.
The above example is a reflection of ASEAN’s paradoxical view of human rights, in which the AHRD says that human rights are, “… entitled … without distinction of any kind, such as race, …, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, economic status, [General Principle no. 2] … (yet) must be considered in the regional and national context bearing in mind different political, economic, legal, social, cultural, historical and religious backgrounds. [General Principle no. 7]” This perspective alone justifies the view that the AHRD is not even close for greater protection of human rights of the ASEAN society.
In the ASEAN perspective, what many considers as inadequacy to the AHRD fulfills the interest of ASEAN as an organization. Since the creation of ASEAN Charter in 2007, non-interference and sovereignty of each member states are put ahead of the better interests of the region, therefore nullifying a greater role of ASEAN over the member states. In addition, the institutionalization of ASEAN which lacks strong organization with authority pushes ASEAN to nothing more than consultative cooperation, returning most (if not all) of the debates to the national level.
The adequacy in ASEAN’s perspective appears to be coherent in the ADHR through how ASEAN surrenders the protection of human rights to national requirements, including national law and political system. This is called sovereignty and non-interference in ASEAN, which is beloved by the regional organization. On the other hand, most observers cannot fathom how ASEAN finds it adequate, with even the universal (and supposedly non-derogable, inalienable) rights should succumb to many considerations.
To conclude, a question on whether the AHRD has gone far enough in terms of protecting the human rights of the ASEAN society, the answer will be a resounding no. A very paradoxical view will be offered by ASEAN due to the accordance to its principles, but in realization, to say it is sufficient will be a betrayal to the effort of safeguarding the interest of ASEAN society in terms of human rights.
This short essay is written for the event “The ASEAN Human Rights Declaration: Does It Go Far Enough”, a discussion held by the United States Mission for ASEAN at the @america Center, 25 February 2013, and among the essays chosen to be discussed in the event.