ASEAN unveils rights body but it still lacks punch
Thailand’s Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, left, greets his Myanmar counterpart Nyan Win ahead of a meeting during the 14th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in the Thai resort city Hua Hin, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of Bangkok Thursday, Feb. 26, 2009. (AP Photo/Chaiwat Subprasom, Pool)
By Jim Gomez
Associated Press Writer / February 27, 2009
CHA-AM, Thailand—Southeast Asian officials on Friday praised a proposal for the creation of a regional human rights body as a historic first step toward confronting abuses, but the body will lack the power to investigate or punish violators like military-ruled Myanmar.
A confidential document obtained by The Associated Press says the rights body, which the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations hopes to form later this year, would “promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms” in the region but will abide by the bloc’s bedrock policy of not interfering in members’ internal affairs.
The document, which outlines the proposed powers of the future rights body, falls short of key demands voiced by international human rights groups, which say the body will have limited effectiveness unless it can impose sanctions or expel countries that violate the rights of their own citizens.
ASEAN traditionally shies away from criticizing its members, although some leaders said that issues of democratic reform in Myanmar and human rights abuses were being discussed on the sidelines of the conference.
The document was presented behind closed doors to ASEAN foreign ministers gathered at a coastal resort in Thailand ahead of an annual leaders summit this weekend.
The draft is the first one to outline the body’s proposed powers; a final one is expected in July.
“It is a historic first for Southeast Asia,” said Rosario Manalo, a Philippine diplomat on the panel that drafted the human rights body’s outline.
Despite the attention given so far to the human rights issue, leaders say the summit will focus on the global economic meltdown and how the export-dependent region can best cope with the crisis.
ASEAN signed a free trade agreement with Australia and New Zealand on Friday, a pact that could boost the combined gross domestic product of all 12 nations by more than $48 billion by 2020.
Officials sought to temper criticism of the proposed human rights body, saying the powers of the body could evolve over time.
Sihasak Phuangketkeow, the chairman of the drafting committee said that “investigative powers should not be ruled out.”
According to the document, the body would follow the principles of “noninterference in the internal affairs of ASEAN member states” and any of the group’s decisions “shall be based on consultation and consensus,” giving Myanmar and other violators veto power to block decisions.
International human rights groups have urged ASEAN leaders to press military-ruled Myanmar to end its rights abuses, including detaining thousands of political prisoners.
The summit, hosted by current chair Thailand, is the first since the group signed a landmark charter in December to make ASEAN a legal entity and move it a step closer to its goal of establishing a single market by 2015 and becoming a European Union-like community.
ASEAN’s 10 members — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — range from very poor to moderately rich.
Associated Press Writers Jocelyn Gecker and Stephen Wright contributed to this report.