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IFEX network calls for ASEAN action to protect free expression in Southeast Asia

©Jason Tanner / Erika Pineros

Brunei Darussalam: H.E. Pehin Dato Dr. Awang Hj. Ahmad bin Hj. Jumat,
Cambodia: H.E. Srun Thirith,
Indonesia: H.E. Rafendi Djamin,
Lao PDR: H.E. Phoukhong Sisoulath,
Malaysia: Dato' Sri Dr. Muhammad Shafee Abdullah,
Myanmar: Amb. Kyaw Tint Swe,
Philippines: Amb. Rosario Gonzales Manalo,
Singapore: Amb. Chan Heng Chee,
Thailand: H.E. Seree Nonthasoot,
Vietnam: Amb.Le Thi Thu,
ASEAN Secretariat point person: Leena Ghosh.

On the occasion of our General Meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, IFEX, the world's largest network of free expression organisations, calls on the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to bring the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD) in line with international standards, to reform the mandate of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) so that it is able to actively protect freedom of expression, and to appoint a regional Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression.

Through the work of our members and the reporting they carry out, the trend of free expression violations in the region, particularly around restrictive laws, the silencing of activists over land disputes, and the general climate of impunity, can not be ignored. With some 600 million people living within the borders of ASEAN member states, ASEAN has a crucial role to play in ensuring the fundamental right to freedom of opinion and expression is protected in the region.

IFEX appreciates the steps taken by ASEAN to adopt the 19 November 2012 ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD). However, the document does not meet international standards, and does not go far enough to ensure the right to freedom of opinion and expression is respected.

The AHRD includes a guarantee of freedom of opinion and expression through Article 23, which is almost an exact replica of Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and states: “Every person has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information whether orally, in writing or through any other medium of that person's choice.” The crucial difference between the UDHR and the AHRD is that the AHRD omits the critical phrase “regardless of frontiers.” This omission can have serious implications for the protection of free expression at the regional level as it may be interpreted to mean that this human right can be superseded by national concerns.

As advocates from freedom of expression organisations based in Southeast Asia and around the world, we call on ASEAN, in consultation with civil society, to:

1. Bring the AHRD up to international standards by including the phrase “regardless of frontiers” in Article 23, and assume a definition protective of free expression and Internet freedom. Also, develop a plan to ensure member states comply with their AHRD commitments.

2. Reform the terms of reference of the AICHR during the 2014 review so that it has the mandate to actively promote human rights, with the power to receive complaints from victims where local remedies have been exhausted; to monitor and investigate human rights violations; to undertake country visits as part of fact-finding; and demand accountability when member states are proven to be violating international human rights.

3. Appoint an autonomous Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression who would provide a bridge between civil society and governments, and bring ASEAN to house the world's fifth special mandate on freedom of expression, joining those from the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the African Commission on Human and People's Rights, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Catalina Botero, the Organization of American States Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression
Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression
Dunja Mijatovic, the Representative on Freedom of Expression, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe
Faith Pansy Tlakula, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights

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