By Stuart Grudgings and Manuel Mogato
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Southeast Asian nations have agreed to sign their first joint declaration on human rights, but the document was condemned by rights groups as failing to meet international standards and as leaving the door open for countries to crack down on freedoms.
The commitment by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to be signed on Sunday in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, comes as several of its 10 member countries come under growing scrutiny over an apparent deterioration in human rights.
U.S. President Barack Obama is under pressure to raise human rights concerns with Cambodia and Myanmar on his visit to the region for the East Asia summit in Phnom Penh on Monday.
The ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, which is not legally blinding, begins with the principle that "All persons are born free and equal in dignity and rights".
It affirms that all citizens are entitled to equal protection by the law and that vulnerable groups such as women, minorities, disabled people and migrants have "inalienable" rights and freedoms.
But the declaration qualifies citizens' rights by saying they must be balanced with the "performance of corresponding duties". It adds that human rights must be "considered in the regional and national context."
The International Federation for Human Rights - a grouping of 64 activist organizations - said the declaration "tears at the heart of long accepted human rights precepts".
"It flies in the face of the international consensus on human rights principles that have been in place for more than six decades," the group said in a statement this week.
ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
"PUBLIC RELATIONS GAME"
The Philippines succeeded on Saturday in adding a clause stating that the declaration would be implemented according to international standards. But rights activists dismissed that change as meaningless because, they said, the document as a whole falls short of global standards.
ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan acknowledged the declaration had weaknesses but said it still represented progress.
"Some are complaining that it may not be up to the higher standard, but I think we are looking at it as a progression, we are looking at in a long time frame," he told reporters.
Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, called the declaration an "ASEAN human rights feel-good show".
"As far as we can see it has basically been set up as a public relations game," he said.
"It has provisions that will allow them to say we don't have to follow this because of national context. They have created their loopholes right up front."
Robertson said that Muslim majority Malaysia had pushed hard to ensure that the declaration contained no reference to gay rights.
Summit host Cambodia has for years faced questions over rights standards. In recent years, it has been accused of trampling on land dwellers' rights by awarding huge land leases to politically well connected firms.
A report by Human Rights Watch released last week said more than 300 people had been killed in Cambodia in politically motivated attacks since an agreement in 1991 that ended a civil war, but not one person had been convicted. It pointed the finger at Cambodian security forces and called on Obama to demand an end to impunity for abusive officials.
Communist Vietnam has been condemned by human rights groups for jailing bloggers who have become increasingly vocal in their criticism of government policies.
Obama is going ahead with a visit to Myanmar despite rights groups' criticism it is premature because reforms have yet to be consolidated after decades of military rule. U.N. human rights investigators have criticized the quasi-civilian government's handling of strife between Buddhists and minority Muslims.
Other countries in Southeast Asia have come in for consistent criticism over human rights, including wealthy Singapore for its tough security laws.
(Writing by Stuart Grudgings; Editing by Robert Birsel)