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As summit concludes and Obama leaves region, free expression concerns linger

UPDATE from Human Rights Watch: Burma: New doubts about pace of reforms (18 May 2013)

Regional leaders recently gathered in Phnom Penh, Cambodia for the 21st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit and related meetings. The occasion was also marked by US President Barack Obama's first-ever visit to Cambodia and Burma.

The ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD), which affects some 600 million people within the borders of the regional body's ten member countries, was adopted on 18 November 2012. Civil society organisations have condemned the declaration, saying it falls below international human rights standards on freedom of opinion and expression. The document has also been widely criticised for unclear language that leaves much to interpretation and could allow authoritarian regimes to curb rights under the auspices of national security or public order.

The AHRD includes a guarantee of freedom of opinion and expression through Article 23, which is lifted almost entirely from Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, except for the phrase "regardless of frontiers". The phrase is a very important component, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) explains, especially in a regional organisation like ASEAN where communication across national borders is key to the development and accountability of its members.

In a joint statement, over 50 civil society organisations, including IFEX members ARTICLE 19 and Human Rights Watch, said the declaration subjugates rights to the "regional and national context," which fundamentally undermines the long-accepted idea of universal human rights.

The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) expressed "concern and disappointment with this flawed declaration, which the people have had no part in developing. An unclear declaration can cause schisms within ASEAN itself, as different countries interpret it differently. What's more, some states may use it as the foundation of people's rights, when it is not binding and at a lower standard than international law." A specific example of this was given by Ou Virak, the head of CCHR, who explained that the declaration gives people the right to demonstrate, but not if the demonstrations affect a country's social order.

In the week leading up to the ASEAN Summit, CCHR also expressed concern over the disruption of parallel civil society events such as the ASEAN People's Forum 2012 (APF). Some venues booked for the APF were cancelled or otherwise disrupted by the owners apparently due to pressure from the Cambodian authorities. Cambodian security forces broke up assemblies and demonstrations held around the capital during the meetings, according to Voice of America, Khmer. Moreover, 8 community activists were arrested in Phnom Penh on 15 November, for displaying "SOS" together with US President Obama's picture on their roof, CCHR reported.

The activists were echoing widespread hopes that Obama's Southeast Asia trip, and his first-ever visit to Cambodia and Burma, would bring much needed attention to regional human rights concerns. Ahead of his visit, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called on Obama to reinvigorate his commitment to human rights and press the leaders of Southeast Asia to address the region's faltering commitment to open media and the rights of journalists. ARTICLE 19 stressed that Obama should use his historic trip to the region to speak for those "who are systematically silenced".

Human Rights Watch urged the US president to publicly express grave concern about Cambodia's deteriorating human rights situation, noting that in 2012 the ruling Cambodian People's Party has routinely used violence, intimidation, and a compliant court system to attack opposition party members and critics. On the eve of Obama's arrival in Phnom Penh on 18 November, CCHR highlighted five priority areas that it hoped would inform the bilateral discussions between the US and Cambodian governments; these included curtailing all censorship of the Internet, putting an end to the physical and judicial harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders, and immediately releasing all defenders currently detained - including Mam Sonando, owner of Beehive Radio who was recently sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment.

On 19 November, demonstrators staged a rally in Phnom Penh urging the U.S. president to press the government to end land grabs, which rights groups say have affected tens of thousands of Cambodians during the past decade, VOA reported.

Upon his arrival in Phnom Penh, the US president voiced concerns about Cambodia's human rights record in what U.S. officials described as a "tense" meeting with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Obama reportedly raised the issue of free and fair elections and the detention of political prisoners. Cambodian officials said in response that the concerns about human rights are "exaggerated".

The long-term impact of Obama's visit to the region and the ASEAN Summit remains to be seen. In the meantime, Cambodian human rights defenders say the adoption of the ASEAN rights declaration has not allayed their fears that rights abuses in the country will persist.

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