Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen delivers his opening remarks for the 21st Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Southeast Asian leaders on Sunday adopted a human rights declaration despite last-minute calls for a postponement by critics, including Washington, who said the pact contains loopholes that could allow atrocities to continue.
The 10 leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, an unwieldy bloc of liberal democracies and authoritarian states, signed a document adopting the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, where the heads of state were holding an annual summit.
The nonbinding declaration calls for an end to torture, arbitrary arrests and other rights violations that have been longtime concerns in Southeast Asia, which rights activists once derisively described as being ruled by a "club of dictators."
ASEAN diplomats have called the declaration a milestone in the region despite its imperfections, saying it will help cement democratic reforms in countries such as Myanmar, which until recently has been widely condemned for its human rights record.
Philippine diplomat Rosario Manalo said it is significant that the region's less democratic governments have embraced the declaration.
Founded in 1967 as an anti-communist bloc in the Cold War era, ASEAN has taken feeble steps to address human rights concerns in the vast region of 600 million people, adopting a charter in 2007 where it committed to uphold international law and human rights but retained a bedrock principle of not interfering in each other's internal affairs — a loophole that critics say helps member states commit abuses without consequence.
In 2009, the group unveiled a commission that was tasked to promote human rights but deprived of power to investigate violations or go after abusers.
ASEAN leaders committed to promote and protect human rights, along with "democracy, rule of law and good governance" in a joint statement they signed to launch the declaration. But provisions in the declaration say rights could be limited for reasons of security, public order and morality.
It adds that the "realization of human rights must be considered in the regional and national context bearing in mind different political, economic, legal, social, cultural, historical and religious backgrounds."
Rights groups say that such conditions could be used to justify violations.
"ASEAN has finally stumbled across the finish line with a flawed declaration that falls short of international standards," said Phil Robertson of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Washington has also expressed concerns, along with ASEAN members Indonesia and the Philippines, which threatened to withhold support until the regional bloc agreed to add a paragraph where it pledged to enforce the declaration with a level of commitment accorded to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, diplomats said.
The ASEAN decides by consensus, meaning that if just one country disapproved, the declaration's launching would have been scuttled. That could have been embarrassing for the regional grouping still struggling to repair the damage to its image after its last ministerial meeting in July collapsed due to infighting over the handling of South China Sea territorial disputes.
Myanmar's top diplomat, Wunna Maung Lwin, told The Associated Press that his country welcomes the declaration and will abide by it.
"It's a very significant step that has been taken by the ASEAN," he said.
Associated Press writers Grant Peck and Sopheng Cheang contributed to this report from Phnom Penh, Cambodia.