Opening remarks by the Regional Representative of the OHCHR Regional Office for South-East Asia on the AICHR Regional Seminar on the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration

2-3 December 2011 - Bali, Indonesia


Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen.

It is a great honour to have been invited here today to provide some opening remarks at the start of this Regional Consultation on the ASEAN human rights declaration.

This two day consultation will provide us with a good opportunity to reflect on the declaration, and why it is so important for the region to get it right.

Perhaps a good place to start is to remind ourselves what human rights are for. In a world of powerful centralised nation states, concepts of human rights have been developed to protect individuals and groups against the misuse and abuse of state power. Modern day nation states have immense resources at their disposal like never before, which brings with it the potential for states to inflict great harm on their own people as well as the potential to do a great amount of good. Human rights define the legitimate use of state power to ensure that the inherent dignity and rights of every human being are respected. And that is why the primary human rights duty bearer is the state.

Human rights concepts clearly define what states should refrain from doing, what they should do to protect human rights and what they should do to fulfil human rights. In terms of refraining, human rights concepts maintain that states should not be able to use their power to torture people, to arbitrarily lock them up, or to arbitrarily kill them. States therefore have an obligation to ensure that state actors do not commit such acts, and if they do, they are brought to justice. And states have an obligation to refrain from other actions, such as interfering with the right of people to freely express their views and opinions.

Furthermore, by virtue of states’ control over such an immense array of resources, human rights not only spell out what states can’t do. They also lay down the basic obligations for states in terms of how they use these resources in order to create a just and fair society in which all people can live a life of dignity.

In this regard, with a monopoly over the use of force, human rights concepts define the obligations of states to protect people from human rights violations by third parties. This includes an obligation to ensure, through appropriate regulation and proper enforcement, that business corporations do not use their power to violate the rights of others, for instance, by expelling people from their land or exploiting natural resources with no regard for the people affected. And states have a responsibility to ensure other private groups and individuals do not violate the rights of others. For instance, states have an obligation to take adequate measures to prevent the trafficking of women and children into prostitution or the trafficking of men to work on fishing vessels against their will. And they have an obligation to protect individuals and groups against acts of violence perpetrated by third parties, whether it be in the schoolyard, on the streets or in the home. Whether it occurs in the capital of a country or in a remote area.

Human rights concepts also prescribe the basic things that states should be doing with their resources to enable people to live a life of dignity and fulfil their potential. These basic things include using available resources to provide free education for children and adequate and accessible health care for all.

In summary, human rights recognise the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. On this basis, they provide the framework, and set the boundaries for the exercise of state power.

This is perhaps why so much interest and expectation is surrounding the drafting of the ASEAN human rights declaration. It is a region that has suffered from the misuse of state power both from outside the region and from within the region. The ASEAN human rights declaration can cement a reordering of priorities, a resetting of principles by which all states in the region place the interests of the human being at its heart. Now is the time of the people, and now is the time for the rights of every human being to be respected and protected.

It is also worth highlighting that these human rights obligations extend to all people within the jurisdiction of the state. People don’t suddenly lose their human rights because they find themselves within the boundaries of another state. If one of us here in this room today was to wake up one morning and find ourselves in another country, then we wouldn’t want to be arbitrarily detained or tortured or denied food or water simply because we were not in our country of birth. Human rights are universal and can’t be taken away by anybody. A recognition of this therefore helps us to recognise the human rights obligations that states have towards migrant workers, asylum seekers and refugees.

And when we talk about these human rights, we should not place them in a vacuum. All of these human rights are interdependent and interrelated. Therefore, in a human rights instrument, we cannot pick and choose certain human rights, or place more emphasis on some rights over others. That is why we say all human rights for all. If we violate one of the basic human rights laid down in the core international human rights instruments, this has implications for other rights. For instance, the denial of the right to education results in illiteracy which inhibits that individual from accessing information, from exercising the right to vote, and from finding work. And this is perhaps a good reason not to create an artificial distinction between rights, such as social and economic rights vs civil and political rights. This false distinction only serves to mask the interdependence and interrelatedness of all human rights.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen.

The High Commissioner earlier in the week expressed her hope to you that this Declaration will be firmly based on universal human rights standards as contained in international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She said at the very least, regional human rights instruments must maintain international human rights standards, and at their best they can enrich these standards, for instance by focusing on new areas such as the rights of older persons or the responsibilities of business in relation to human rights.

This is an historic document, and history will judge whether it is a document which breaks new ground in firmly placing universal human rights standards at the heart of a thriving South-East Asia community. And history will judge whether this is an instrument which acts as a force for good, and which plays a tangible role in improving the lives of individuals across the region. This is the responsibility you hold in your hands. We are on the edge of a new age in ASEAN, where the human being is at the heart of a community of peace, security and prosperity. People ask what a regional human rights mechanism is for and what it can do. This is something it can do: set basic standards for states in the region to aspire to, leading to improvements in the lives of all people in South-East Asia.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights stands ready to do all it can to support you in this task. I wish you a fruitful and productive two days.