Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists called on members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to increase efforts to protect the rights of women and children in light of the newly adopted Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women and Elimination of Violence against Children in ASEAN. The Declaration was adopted at the 23rd ASEAN Summit in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam, on 9 October.
The Declaration states the commitment of all 10 ASEAN member states to further “prevent and protect [women and children] from and respond to all forms of violence, abuse and exploitation of women and children particularly for those who are in vulnerable situations”. AI and ICJ welcome this commitment, which allows for no exceptions or discrimination, while expressing concern that no explicit mention was made of lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex women and children in the non-exhaustive list of those requiring particular protection from discrimination and violence that follows this general statement.
The Declaration details a wide array of measures that Member States should take, within “a holistic, multi-disciplinary approach”, in order to eliminate violence against women and children. These include changes to legislation, policies and practices; training and education; investigation, prosecution, punishment and where appropriate rehabilitation of perpetrators; creating an enabling environment for the participation of women and children; and the development of strategies for the elimination of harmful practices.
AI and ICJ pointed out that the Declaration suffers from some serious deficiencies in substance, as well as in the process of its adoption.
In terms of process, most ASEAN Member states failed to meaningfully consult with national civil society in the elaboration of the Declaration. Only Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam held consultations, which in some of these states were limited. This problem was compounded once the ACWC had finalised its draft, as the discussions and approval processes thereafter were completely shrouded in secrecy. This final draft was never circulated to women’s and children’s groups in the region, despite written requests from several civil society groups calling for its release. This unacceptable lack of transparency violates international guidelines on consultation with civil society.
AI And ICJ deplore the fact that the Declaration reaffirms the General Principles of the discredited ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD), some of which are wholly incompatible with international law and allow for impermissible restrictions on human rights. The two organizations reiterate their call to revise the AHRD, particularly by repealing or substantially amending General Principles 6-8, so as to bring it into line with international human rights law and standards.
AI and the ICJ underline that international law allows no justification for violence against women and children and requires States to comply with their obligations to prohibit, prevent, investigate, punish and ensure reparations for victims of such violence in all circumstances. Nothing in the Declaration may be construed to circumvent ASEAN Member States’ obligation to eliminate “prejudices and customary and all other practices” as well as “harmful and discriminatory traditional practices” that amount to, result in or perpetuate violence against women and children.
In addition, a significant omission of the Declaration is the lack of a reference to economic barriers to protection, assistance and justice faced by women and children in situations of violence. ASEAN Member States should ensure that financial means do not impede access to justice, particularly of those living in poverty.
Moreover, the rights groups also highlighted that ACWC rejected the proposal from women and children groups to have two separate declarations. Although both women and children share similar vulnerabilities necessitating for additional protection, there remains certain rights, approaches and differing needs that are specific to each groups that could only be adequately addressed by having two separate declarations.
AI and the ICJ stated that ASEAN’s determination to end violence against women and children will ultimately be measured only by effective implementation of the Declaration in a manner which complies with their international obligations. The Declaration tasks the ACWC to promote the implementation of the Declaration and review its progress. AI and the ICJ call on the ACWC to actively implement this mandate, and for ASEAN Member States to cooperate with the ACWC in fulfilling this role.