From the Selangor Times 23 November 2012. Ask Lord Bobo is a weekly column by LoyarBurok where all your profound, abstruse, erudite, hermetic, recondite, sagacious, and other thesaurus-described queries are answered!

Lord Bobo, does the signing of the ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights recently mean that the fight for human rights in Malaysia is over, and Lord Bobo has won? What does LoyarBurok plan to do now? Tech reviews? (Right to Fight, via email)

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (“ASEAN”) Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the ASEAN Member States on 18 November 2012.

On the one hand, the ASEAN Declaration repeats most of the rights and freedoms provided under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“Universal Declaration”). For example, the right to life and personal liberty, to freedom of religion, expression and assembly. The Member States affirm all the civil and political rights in the Universal Declaration.

Further, every person is entitled to such rights without discrimination as to race, gender, religion, national or social origin, etc.

Sounds good right? Alas, just like deceptively catchy pop music, some things sound better than they actually are (with the exception of Taylor Swift of course, she’s awesome!).

These lofty statements of rights and freedoms are seriously, and perhaps fatally, qualified by a number of factors set out in the same document.

As a starting point, the enjoyment of rights and freedoms must be balanced with the performance of “corresponding duties” as every person has responsibilities to all other individuals, the community and the society where one lives. The concept of “corresponding duties” is not found in the Universal Declaration. The fact that the Member States chose to add this into the ASEAN Declaration raises a red flag.

Naturally, what such “corresponding duties” consist of is not defined, therefore leaving it open for any Member State to abuse it by interpreting it in any which way they see fit. Which is not really comforting, looking through the list of the ASEAN governments and knowing their delightful human rights records.

The realisation of human rights must also be considered in the regional and national context bearing in mind different political, economic, legal, social, cultural, historical and religious backgrounds.

By allowing for those differences, the ASEAN Declaration permits each country to have its own grade of human rights. For example, Muslims in Indonesia can have freedom of religion; Muslims in Malaysia, maybe not, up to Malaysia really. This obviously clashes with the principle mentioned above (stated in a different part of the same Declaration) that every person is entitled to human rights without discrimination.

Like “corresponding duties”, the concept of differing levels of human rights entitlement is also not found in the Universal Declaration. It is easy for a Member State to rely on its “different” social and cultural background to justify the status quo as being human rights compliant.

Under the Universal Declaration, human rights are subject to morality, public order and general welfare. The ASEAN Declaration adds the following to the list – national security, public health, and public safety.

Particularly worrying is “national security” which can be illegitimately used to justify many forms of oppressive government action, as history has shown. The Malaysian government is of course well versed in the dark arts of using “national security” to excuse all sorts of human rights violations. Lord Bobo is not comforted.

Further, there is real doubt whether the ASEAN Declaration will even be enforced. It is, after all, just a “declaration”.

Our own Prime Minister has very publicly and repeatedly declared throughout his tenure that the Malaysian government allows freedom of speech, that there is freedom of assembly, that there is media freedom, that the law and the police are never wielded by the government due to political motives. We can all declare what we want really, but when the banana hits the cabana, these declarations easily give way to human rights conflagrations.

The fact is, the ASEAN Declaration is not law in Malaysia. It only becomes law when our Parliament passes an Act making it so. Currently, there is no news that our Government intends to present such an Act to Parliament. And His Supreme Eminenceness is not holding our breath or any breasts.

At the international level, the ASEAN Declaration does not provide for a supranational court to enforce its provisions, like what the European Court of Human Rights does in relation to the European Convention on Human Rights.

So, let’s be honest. The ASEAN Declaration is merely a public relations exercise, to mislead the international community into believing that the Member States are human rights compliant. After all, reading our mainstream media reports on it, one would be led to believe that Malaysia (and ASEAN) are dedicated to upholding human rights.

The rights provided are already in the Universal Declaration. If there was genuine political will to advance human rights, all that each State has to do is to make the Universal Declaration part of its domestic law and to enforce it effectively. There is no need to create another human rights declaration.

Many of the limitations provided are new.

Therefore, in reality, the only utility of the ASEAN Declaration is to add new limitations to human rights, resulting in a lower standard of such rights and breaching the Universal Declaration. And that is the way that the media should have reported it really – “ASEAN Member States Agree to Limit Human Rights!”

The fight for human rights is far from over. Lord Bobo will carry on, and the LoyarBurokkers will have to keep wearing their special leather LB underthings.

As for tech reviews, hey, if it means someone will send us the latest gadgets to play with and write about, sure!

All for the cause of justice and human rights obviously.


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