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An Open Letter from the Coordination Committee of the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council on the draft ASEAN Human Rights Declaration

Asean Human Rights Declaration should maintain international standards 

The Coordination Committee of the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council supports the ongoing efforts within ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) to develop a regional human rights system.  The adoption of a credible ASEAN Human Rights Declaration will represent a significant step forward in these efforts. In this context, we encourage the Member States to ensure that international human rights standards are maintained when they come to consider the adoption of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration this Sunday (18 November 2012). 

For the ASEAN human rights system to complement the work of the United Nations human rights system, including the work of Special Procedures, it is imperative that, as a minimum, ASEAN’s landmark human rights instrument maintains international human rights standards.  Next year we will mark the 20th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, to which ASEAN Member States and civil society made significant contributions. The Vienna Declaration sought to forge a new vision for global action for human rights into the next century.  This Declaration, adopted by 171 States by consensus, proclaimed: “While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”      

It is essential that the ASEAN Declaration reaffirms this important principle of the Vienna Declaration.  For instance, the right to life is a fundamental right upon which all other rights depend.  Any credible human rights instrument should unconditionally protect this right without making it contingent on the provisions of domestic law.  Indeed, the raison d'être of regional human rights instruments is to establish minimum standards that all domestic laws need to comply with, which may involve the amendment of domestic laws if these violate human rights.  If the recognition of human rights is qualified with provisions such as “in accordance with national law”, this could be used by Governments as a justification to go below international standards.  For example, in relation to the right to life, such a provision could be used to shield States against scrutiny by international human rights mechanisms concerning the excessive use of force by law enforcement officers, state failure to protect people against non-state actors and the continuation of the use of the death penalty.

With regard to provisions which seek to “balance” rights with individual duties, this is not the wording of international human rights law.  Reference to “balancing” in these terms denies the positive dynamic that exists between rights and duties.  The creation of an environment where people are able to exercise their human rights is directly linked to the creation of an environment where trust and respect can develop between individuals and groups and between the people and state institutions.  In such an environment, duties and responsibilities are able to emerge freely.  This is not to say that laws should not be in place to guard against, for instance, defamation of individuals or incitement to hatred.  However, advocating a balance between human rights and duties creates much greater scope for Governments to place arbitrary, disproportionate and unnecessary restrictions on human rights.  There should be no such provision in a human rights instrument, whose primary purpose is to protect individuals and groups against the misuse and abuse of State power.       

With regard to legitimate restrictions, under certain conditions, on the grounds of “morality”, “public order” and “national security”, special procedures mandate holders are acutely aware of the risk of  these terms being used as a pretext by Governments to place arbitrary, disproportionate and unnecessary restrictions on human rights.  In order to ensure that the ASEAN human rights declaration adds value to international instruments, we strongly encourage the inclusion of language which makes explicit that the restrictions must be provided by law and conform to the strict tests of necessity and proportionality, and that these restrictions may not put in jeopardy the right itself or apply to rights that are non-derogable under international law.

We would also hope to see an ASEAN human rights declaration which adds value, by addressing human rights concerns that are particularly pertinent to the region.  For instance, the South-East Asia region has a large number of asylum seekers who are often subjected to further human rights violations after fleeing persecution in their home country.  Therefore, we would hope to see language providing for the right to seek and to enjoy, in other countries, asylum from persecution, as well as on the international customary law principle of non-refoulement (to prevent persons from being returned to countries where, for instance, they will be subjected to torture).  Again, such provisions should not be contingent on domestic laws.  Similarly, on the issue of statelessness, we would hope to see provisions that provide for access to citizenship and the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of their nationality, including a provision on birth registration for children who would otherwise be stateless.         

It is our hope that the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration takes its place as a landmark document which contributes to an improvement in the human rights situation in South-East Asia.  To secure this, the Declaration should, as a minimum, maintain international standards if not add to these standards.  One way of ensuring this would be to consult further with the people of the region, including civil society organisations, to take on board their concerns and aspirations.  Special procedures also stand ready to provide further advice to ASEAN in this historic task.