My session on “Human rights in the ASEAN” with the students of the EarthRights School Mekong last week could not have been set at a better time. Just four days prior, the heads of the member states of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, adopted the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration in Phnom Penh amidst protests against its highly opaque and uninclusive drafting process. I was eager to see how a group of young advocates, most of whom only started to formally learn about human rights at the Mekong School, would react to the final document. I intentionally made the class read and react first, before talking about how more established institutions have reacted.

“There is a section on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. But why do I not see any cultural right? There is no paragraph on language.”

“I don’t see the word ‘indigenous’.”

“It uses ‘every person’ in most parts, but ‘men and women’ in the part on marriage. We are far away from gay marriage.”

They saw beyond the seemingly harmless language of the Declaration.

We then went into discussing paragraph 6 on the need for the enjoyment of rights to be balanced with the fulfillment of duties; and paragraphs 7 and 8, which mention phrases like ‘regional and national context’ and ‘public morality’. We struggled to reconcile these with one of the first things we learned in our human rights classes–that human rights are inherent and universal. Much earlier in the session, the students were describing how the cultural, economic and political differences of ASEAN member states made it difficult to agree on most things, including human rights. Despite having a deep understanding of the diversity of ASEAN member states, themselves epitomizing this diversity, the students still found it hard to accept that this was the best Declaration that ASEAN could come up with. Reading about the concerns raised by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the U.S. government, as well as the outrage of civil society groups, reinforced their understanding of human rights and reminded them of how much work needs to be done in the region.

The class was incredulous; they asked if the document was final. As with other human rights instruments that have been made stronger with the help of steadfast civil society pressure, we agreed that it is only final until it is changed.