Time to Get It Right: Southeast Asian Nations Human Rights Declaration

Posted on September 26, 2012


Foreign Ministers from ten countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will meet in New York on September 27 to review the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD), which is currently the controversial second draft.

On September 25, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum Asia) and Solidarity for Asian People’s Advocacy Task Force on ASEAN and Human Rights delivered a statement before the Human Rights Council in Geneva, which called the draft version of the ASEAN Declaration seriously flawed for being discriminatory and in violation of the commonly held principle of human rights being inalienable.

Throughout the drafting of the Declaration, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) has been sharply criticized for several reasons: limiting civil society participation by rushing the drafting process, curbing the diversity of civil society voices by excluding many groups denied official registration and legal recognition by their governments for work as human rights defenders, lacking transparency by not sharing drafts of the Declaration with civil society groups or indicating if civil society recommendations were being incorporated into the drafts, and excluding marginalized groups requiring human rights protections, including LGBT people.

AICHR which comprises representatives from each of the ten ASEAN countries was mandated in 2008 under the ASEAN Human Rights Charter to develop a “framework for human rights cooperation through various ASEAN conventions and other instruments dealing with human rights.” Among AICHR’s members, tasked with giving the region its first set of guidelines for ensuring human rights, are high level government officials including Vietnam’s director of foreign affairs, Brunei’s chief justice of the sharia high court, the Philippines ambassador to Japan, Singapore’s senior district judge for subordinate courts, as well as two activists from Thailand and Indonesia, and a lawyer from the Malaysia Human Rights Commission.

The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights makes decisions by consensus, which has created stalemates on decisions about excluding “public morality” as a caveat for suspending human rights and including LGBT people’s rights. According to the summary record of the Commission’s convening in the Philippines on September 12, Sriprapha Petcharamesree, Thailand’s representative gave assurances that if consensus was not possible, they would use the formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). ” We will not go lower than the Universal Declaration,” she said. In contrast, Bounkeut Sangsomsak, the representative from Lao, insisted that they “should not simply be a copy the Universal Declaration but take into consideration the diversity and realities of the ten ASEAN member countries.”

LGBT rights advocates in the region , working to make the Declaration truly “people-centric” are concerned that in the absence of explicit reference to sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) in the Universal Declaration, the drafters of the ASEAN Declaration will omit LGBT rights. The activists are urging that the AHRD also be based on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories. All ASEAN countries, have signed these two treaties and are obligated to promote the principles of equality they mandate.

The drafters of the AICHR are out of step with developments in the broader human rights arena. They have missed the opportunity to adopt a progressive vision of human rights. Instead, they have blamed religion and culture for holding back its commitment to recognizing that all human beings have human rights and that LGBT rights are human rights.

The decision to omit sexual orientation and gender identity from the ASEAN Declaration signals lack of concern for marginalized communities who suffer horrendous violence because of their sexual orientation and gender identity and have no avenues of legal recourse for widespread and institutionalized discrimination. Those individuals from religious minority groups that have noisily demonized LGBT people and spread intolerance in the name of religion do not represent the majority in their countries, nor do they represent the majority point of view of all religions. Most people in the ASEAN countries do not want LGBT people to suffer from violence, discrimination, hatred and intolerance.

The meeting of the ASEAN Ministers precedes a convening of Commonwealth Foreign Ministers on September 29 in New York. Four ASEAN countries are part of the Commonwealth (formerly colonized by Britain) — Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore, the strongest opponents to including sexual orientation and gender identity in the ASEAN Declaration. Burma, also a Commonwealth nation is silent on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

There is still time to right a wrong. And now is the time to do it. Non-discrimination, non-violence, and equal protection of the law are critical for the well being of all people in Asia including LGBT people. The Foreign Ministers of the ASEAN need to reject the current draft of the Declaration and insist that it be inclusive and truly representative of the diversity of ASEAN societies. It needs to reflect the voices of hundreds of civil society groups who have asked for the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity as a protected category in the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration before it is adopted in November 2012.

Grace Poore 

Ignoring U.S. Appeals, Vietnam’s Communist Regime Jails Bloggers

Beneath a statue of Ho Chi Minh, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Vietnamese Communist Party general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong in Hanoi on Tuesday, July 10, 2012. (AP Photo)

The imprisonment of three Vietnamese bloggers has focused fresh attention onto the gulf between practices of Hanoi’s communist regime and democratic norms the Obama administration says it is promoting as part of a deepening bilateral relationship.

The conviction Monday of the woman and two men came two months after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during a visit to the country, raised concerns directly with her hosts about the case.

Convicted by a Ho Chi Minh City court of “conducting propaganda against the state of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” Nguyen Van Hai, 60, was sentenced to 12 years; Ta Phong Tan, 44, to 10 years, and Phan Thanh Hai, 43, to four years in prison. The prison terms will each be followed by terms of house arrest ranging from three to five years.

The three are associated with the “Free Journalists Club,” a website set up in 2007, and the charges related to posts on that site as well as on their own blogs. According to the press freedom watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, subject matter included official corruption, injustice and Vietnam’s territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.

It said Nguyen Van Hai (whose pen name is Dieu Cay) has already been incarcerated since April 2008, “on a trumped-up charge of tax fraud designed to silence a troublesome dissident,” while Phan Thanh Hai was arrested in October 2010.

The watchdog said the tough sentences “are symptomatic of a nervousness and determination to crack down more than ever at a time of divisions within the regime and corruption cases involving senior officials including the prime minister – clearly embarrassing cases that were revealed by bloggers and citizen journalists.”

The charges against the bloggers were brought under article 88 of Vietnam’s criminal code, which deals with “spreading fabricated news in order to foment confusion among people” and “defaming the people’s administration.”

The official Vietnam News Agency said the trio had posted “documents distorting the party and state, sowing suspicions and eroding people’s trust in the administration.”

Their offense was considered to be “extremely serious, constant and [one that] causes negative impact on national security and the image of Vietnam in the international community.”

Online poster demanding for immediate release of bloggers Ta Phong Tan (10-year jail sentence + 5-year house arrest), Dieu Cay (12-year jail sentence + 5-year house arretst), and AnhBaSG (4-year jail sentence + 3-year house arrest)

Prosecutors said the activities were carried out “in collusion with Vietnamese reactionary organizations in exile.” The communist party organ Tuoi Tre said two of the three were also accused of taking part in a non-violent activism course in neighboring Thailand, hosted by Viet Tan, a U.S.-based group which Hanoi considers a terrorist organization.

“The heavy sentences against these three bloggers, as well as the detention of many other activists over the last year, show just how fragile and insecure the Hanoi regime is,” Viet Tan spokesman Duy Hoang said Wednesday.

“A regime respecting human rights and confident of popular support does not imprison citizen for “anti-state propaganda,” he told CNSNews.com.

Hoang said that since Dieu Cay was first detained in 2008, “countless other ‘Dieu Cays’ have taken up blogging about corruption, Vietnamese territorial sovereignty, the need for political reform. Hanoi may be able to repress individual bloggers today but it is totally powerless in the long run against the citizen journalism movement and civil society flourishing online.”

‘Wicked plot’

At a press briefing Tuesday, a Vietnamese foreign ministry spokesman defended the trial.

“In Vietnam, citizens’ rights to freedom are clearly stipulated in its constitution and legal documents, respected and secured in reality,” Luong Thanh Nghi said. “Vietnamese citizens exercise all their rights within the framework of the law.”

Critical official reaction to free expression goes to the very top. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s office earlier this month lashed out at blogs focusing on official corruption, calling them part of a “wicked plot” by “hostile forces.”

Reporters Without Borders says Vietnam is the country with the third largest number of people detained for online activism, after China and Iran.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland in a statement Monday urged the Vietnamese authorities to release the three, “who appear to have done nothing more than exercise their right to freedom of expression.”

Nuland recalled that Clinton during her July visit had said protection of human rights is a necessary step in developing a closer, more mature bilateral relationship.

In Hanoi, Clinton told reporters she had raised with her Vietnamese counterpart concerns about human rights, in particular “restrictions on free expression online and the upcoming trial of the founders of the so-called Free Journalists Club.”

Official Vietnamese media coverage of her visit ignored those comments altogether, however, and within days of her departure, a Vietnamese court sentenced three other activists – also convicted under article 88 – to between four and five-and-a-half years’ imprisonment.

Critics believe Vietnam has paid no price for its human rights violations even as it reaps the rewards of expanding economic and political ties with the U.S., a process that began under President Clinton in 1995, continued under President Bush and has accelerated under the current administration.

President Obama has welcomed Vietnam into the Trans-Pacific Partnership(TPP), an ambitious proposed trade agreement. Of the TPP’s 11 current members or negotiating partners, Vietnam is one of just two that are not democracies (the tiny sultanate of Brunei is the other).

Earlier this month a delegation from Vietnam’s only permitted trade union, a communist party affiliate, visited the U.S. at the invitation of the AFL-CIO to promote ties between the two organizations.

“The U.S. side spoke highly of the achievements recorded by Vietnam’s trade union, including revising the labor law and expressed its hope to further step up cooperation with the Vietnamese side,” the Voice of Vietnam radio reported at the end of the visit.

On September 11 the House of Representatives passed the Vietnam Human Rights Act, which links increases in non-humanitarian U.S. assistance to certifiable improvements in Hanoi’s human rights record. The bill, authored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) was sent to the Senate for consideration.