CJFE, IFEX and co-signatories call on ASEAN to protect free expression in Southeast Asia

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

H.E. Pehin Dato Dr. Awang Hj. Ahmad bin Hj. Jumat, Chairperson, ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR),
H.E. Srun Thirith, Representative of Cambodia to AICHR,
H.E. Rafendi Djamin, Representative of Indonesia to AICHR,
H.E. Phoukhong Sisoulath, Representative of Lao PDR to AICHR,
H.E. Dato' Sri Dr. Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, Representative of Malaysia to AICHR,
Amb. Kyaw Tint Swe, Representative of Myanmar to AICHR,
Amb. Rosario Gonzales Manalo, Representative of the Philippines to AICHR,
Amb. Chan Heng Chee, Representative of Singapore to AICHR,
H.E. Seree Nonthasoot, Representative of Thailand to AICHR,
Amb.Le Thi Thu, Representative of Vietnam to AICHR,
And Leena Ghosh, Assistant Director with the ASEAN Secretariant

ASEAN Secretariat
ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights
Jl. Sisingamangaraja 70A
Jakarta 12110

Dear Members of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights,

I am writing on behalf of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), a non-profit, non-governmental organisation that works to promote and protect press freedom and freedom of expression around the world.

CJFE adds its voice to the members of IFEX in calling for ASEAN to protect free expression in Southeast Asia. On the occasion of their 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 IFEX’s 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, cannot 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 November 19, 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, CJFE, IFEX and fellow co-signatories 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.

We thank you for your attention, and I look forward to your reply.

Yours sincerely,
Arnold Amber, CJFE President

CC: 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 Mijatović, the Representative on Freedom of the Media, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe
Faith Pansy Tlakula, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights 
The Honourable John Baird, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs