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ASEAN leaders sign human rights declaration at Cambodia summit

ASEAN members have hailed the document as a milestone, but human rights activists are critical.

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Believe it or not, this is serious business. Shown here linking hands for a publicity shot during the opening of the 19th summit of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the leaders and representatives of ASEAN may be poised to take on greater importance as Obama reboots America's Asian agenda. (ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)

ASEAN leaders signed a human rights declaration Sunday, but critics say that it is full of loopholes that may allow autocrats to suppress their citizens in the name of national security.

The 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations inked the document in a formal ceremony on Sunday in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh, where they were gathered for an annual summit. 

“I think that is a major, major development... the leaders have just signed that into a declaration committing themselves, every government, every country, to the highest standards, existing and available," ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said at a press conference following the ceremony, Voice of America reported. "And this certainly can be used to monitor the practice, the protection, the promotion of human rights here in the ASEAN countries." 

Some human rights activists, however, were dismayed with the agreement.

"Our worst fears in this process have come to pass," said Human Rights Watch's deputy Asia director Phil Robertson, Agence France Presse reported. "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." 

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Over 60 human rights organizations have asked that the document be delayed, citing lack of transparency and the diversity of member nations' governments, according to AFP. 

The organization said it had amended the text to address the complaints, but Human Rights Watch said the changes did not repair the "flawed" declaration, Radio Free Europe reported.

ASEAN's members also decided Sunday to request that China begin formal talks "as soon as possible" to prevent violence in the contested South China Sea territories, the Associated Press reported

ASEAN's member countries include Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The group's meeting will turn into an East Asia summit on November 19 when leaders of Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea, and the United States join the group, including President Barack Obama. 

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/121118/asean-leaders-sign-human-rights-declaration