ASEAN limits free speech scope in rights declaration, says regional media group

Bangkok  – The standard set by the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD) falls below international human rights standards on freedom of opinion and expression, a regional press freedom watchdog said today.

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) said that the omission of the phrase ‘regardless of frontiers’ from the declaration meant that it fell below the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which the regional group had pledged to uphold through the declaration.

The AHRD was unveiled by leaders of the 10 member states of ASEAN yesterday. The document included a guarantee on freedom of opinion and expression through Article 23, which is lifted almost entirely from the UDHR’s Article 19, except for the said phrase.

‘The omission of the phrase is a sign of the low commitment of ASEAN member countries to freedom of expression,’ said SEAPA executive director Gayathry Venkiteswaran.

She explained that the phrase is a very important component of the human right, especially in a regional organization like ASEAN where communication across national borders is key to development and accountability of its members.

‘It is particularly alarming that the framers of the document opted to delete the phrase in the light of borderless communications through the internet and with increasing integration and exchange among the regional media,’ Gayathry said.

‘This can legitimize censorship of messages from overseas,’ she added, noting that criticisms of ASEAN member states include those coming from abroad—international bodies and NGOS, and opposition groups who have been forced into exile because of political repression at home.

Sub-standard principles

SEAPA also echoed criticisms of the AHRD raised by other human rights organizations which have earlier called for an extension of deliberations of the draft because of the low standards it set, and the lack of adequate public consultations.

Human rights groups expressed particular concern that the AHRD contained three caveats to human rights in General Principles 6, 7 and 8, which can be used to get around the guarantees provided by the document.

‘This is really appalling especially considering the practice in many ASEAN states of legally curtailing many civil liberties—including free expression—against international human rights principles,’ said Gayathry.

‘These caveats mean that human rights in ASEAN including free speech may be will continue to be curtailed,’ she added citing national security, press control and criminalized speech laws currently in place in many ASEAN countries.

Many of these national laws have been called out by UN human rights bodies as violating international norms,’ Gayathry explained, ‘including criminal libel which is practised in almost all ASEAN states.’

‘National security and public order should be very strict exceptions to curtail human rights and free speech,’ she said, ‘but these placed at the start of the document which can mean they come before human rights.’

‘In placing caveats in the AHRD principles, ASEAN has prioritised escape clauses in states’ responsibility to uphold human rights,’ SEAPA’s executive director further said.

However, she said that SEAPA will still hold ASEAN states accountable for the rights in the declaration, despite limitations.

‘We don’t accept what the ASEAN leaders have insisted on—that this is a non-binding document. If they have adopted it, they are committed to honouring it. We will hold the member states to the standards they agreed to, but we will be guided by the international standards on human rights,’ Gayathry said.

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