Asean's adoption this week of a declaration of human rights may only be a symbolic move, but it provides a framework for more meaningful reforms in the future.
South East Asian bloc takes first step towards human rights reform
Torture, extrajudicial executions, detention without trial and other human rights abuses are unlikely to become a thing of the past in South East Asia anytime soon, but this week the region's leaders made a bold step in that direction. At least in theory.
Gathering in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital, representatives of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), a 10-nation bloc comprising Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, adopted a non-binding declaration guaranteeing the protection of human rights for the 600 million people living within its borders.
The 40-clause declaration aims to protect the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of all people regardless of race, gender, age, native language or ideological beliefs.
However, watchdogs said the pact was deeply flawed and called for its adoption to be delayed until concerns could be addressed. Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in a statement that there were loopholes that could be used to justify clampdowns based on "national context" or for reasons of "public morality".
"Rather than meeting international standards, this declaration lowers them by creating new loopholes and justifications that Asean member states can use to justify abusing the rights of their people." Asean acknowledged that it was an imperfect document, stating that it was "a work in a progress and not an end-state" and that for the time being human rights would be viewed in their "societal context".
HWR's concerns are no doubt well-founded, but even if the declaration is little more than an agreement in principle that human beings have inalienable rights that must be protected, which admittedly may not have an immediate and tangible impact in all, or perhaps even any, of the Asean countries, it is still a significant symbolic move for a region where rights abuses have traditionally been the accepted norm.
As watered down as this proposal may have been for the sake of reaching a consensus among ideologically diverse and in some cases politically unstable member states, the declaration at least has the potential to facilitate more meaningful reform in the future by providing a framework to build on.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, is still regarded dismissively by many countries, including the United States, which continues to torture and execute people, but few would question its value as a standard of conduct to which governments should aspire.
Coinciding with the bloc's historic move, the Myanmar government, which arguably has the worst human rights record in the region (and quite possibly the world), released more than three dozen political prisoners when US President Barack Obama briefly visited the commercial capital Yangon on Monday on his way to the Asean summit in Cambodia, providing cause for optimism, albeit of the very cautious variety, about its leaders' willingness to embrace change.
However, the true tests of their sincerity will be how they go about bringing an end to the ethnic insurgency in the northern state of Kachin and how they deal with the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine state, situated on the west coast, where a recent explosion of sectarian violence against the Muslim Rohingya people has seen scores killed, thousands burnt out of their homes and at least 100,000 displaced.
Obama's remarks during a speech to a select group at Yangon University, the site of numerous violently suppressed student demonstrations over the years, about Myanmar's democratic reform process, which began in 2010 after half a century of brutal military rule, apply equally to the broader struggle to improve human rights records across the Asean region.
"Reforms launched from the top of society must meet the aspirations of citizens who form its foundation," said Obama. "This remarkable journey has just begun, and has much further to go."