‘Address regional human rights concerns,’ UN experts urge ASEAN summit

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Rohingya children fleeing Myanmar (left); Jennelyn Olaires cradles her partner Michael Siaron after he was shot dead in Manila. (Reuters file images)

MANILA, Philippines — Human rights experts at the United Nations have called on member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to “address pressing human rights issues” when they come together for their 31st summit in Manila.

Among the major human rights issues confronting members of the regional bloc are the bloody war on drugs waged by the Philippine government, this year’s ASEAN chair, and the exodus of what is estimated to be almost half a million Rohingya from Myanmar.

The Philippines’ drug war killings in particular, which some tallies place at more than 13,000 and still rising since July last year, have prompted renewed calls for the UN to lead an investigation and a U.S. congressional rights panel to urge President Donald Trump to confront President Rodrigo Duterte on the matter.


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Trump and UN secretary general Antonio Gutierres will be coming to Manila for the ASEAN summit.

Rising number of rights violations

The UN experts — special rapporteurs Annalisa Ciampi (rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association), Agnes Callamard (extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions), Michel Forst (the situation of human rights defenders), and Yanghee Lee (on the situation of human rights in Myanmar) — also noted the “rising numbers of cases of serious human rights violations affecting among others, people working on women’s rights, environmental and land issues and lawyers dealing with drug cases” and “a worrying deterioration in the environment” in which civil society organizations across the region operate.

“Human rights defenders, social activists, lawyers, journalists, independent media and even parliamentarians trying to speak out and protect the rights of others, increasingly face a multitude of risks ranging from judicial harassment and prosecution to threats, disappearances and killings,” they said.

Among others, they urged ASEAN countries to amend or repeal existing laws, and reconsider proposed legislation, that are or could be used “to criminalize or restrict the vital work of civil society.”

They also condemned “the public vilification, harassment, arrests and killings of members of civil society,” and demanded that members of the regional bloc “rigorously uphold their duty to ensure the freedom and protection of those exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.”

“Independent media, members of civil society and human rights defenders should be viewed as partners and as an essential element of democracy,” they added.

The Philippines, in particular, has long been one of the deadliest countries for journalists. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines has recorded at least 178 media killings since 1986, including the 32 media workers who were among the 58 persons killed in the November 23, 2009 Ampatuan massacre. Under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, five journalists have been murdered thus far.

Human rights in the digital realm

The UN experts said human rights abuses had also entered the digital realm as they expressed dismay with the “increasing harassment and prosecutions of bloggers, journalists and social media users.”

They also reminded ASEAN members to “protect all vulnerable groups” since “inclusion and meaningful participation are elements of the Sustainable Development Goals.”

At the same time, they welcomed “efforts of the ASEAN human rights mechanisms to promote human rights in the region” and said the 50th anniversary of the regional bloc “provides an important opportunity for member-states to publicly renew their individual and collective commitments to the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration and international human rights conventions, both in practice and spirit.”

They urged ASEAN governments to “see human rights monitoring and reporting, not as a threat, but as a positive tool that can help them comply with these commitments” and said the summit in Manila “should be seen as an opportunity to make real progress on these issues and to show the world that the member-states of ASEAN are fully committed to securing the human rights of all in the region.”