Monday, 20 July 2009

Southeast Asia human rights body criticized as toothless

Sunday, July 19, 2009

PHUKET, Thailand — Southeast Asian officials on Sunday were finalizing an unprecedented regional human rights body which has sparked criticism from activists that it will be toothless.

Endorsement is expected Monday at a conference of the region's foreign ministers, with official approval coming at a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, in October.

Critics say the ASEAN Human Rights Body is unlikely to have bite since the 10-nation bloc has traditionally operated by consensus and shuns interference in the internal affairs of its members, which include military-run Myanmar and Communist Vietnam and Laos.

The body would not investigate or prosecute human rights violators, according to the terms under discussion. Instead, it would take a "constructive and non-confrontational approach" to promote and protect human rights. There is no provision in the draft for human rights experts to sit on the body.

"The organization must be realistic by taking into consideration the political differences and readiness in promoting human rights of each ASEAN member country," a conference document says.

Such statements have drawn fire from private groups and academics.

"Members of the body should be able to consider human rights in places such as Burma (Myanmar) and Cambodia or southern Thailand, or what's the point?" said Chalida Tajaroensak, president of the Thailand-based People's Empowerment Foundation.

The conference is taking place amid international outrage over the trial of Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who faces up to five years in prison on charges of violating terms of her house arrest by allowing an uninvited American to stay at her home.

Myanmar's human rights record is expected to feature at a meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum, which follows the ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting and includes 27 members including the United States, Russia and China.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who arrives Tuesday, is expected to bring up both Myanmar and North Korea's nuclear program.

The new human rights body is called for in the ASEAN Charter, promulgated seven months ago to serve as the 42-year-old bloc's constitution.

Last month, more than 200 groups urged in a letter to the drafters to make the rights body an "effective mechanism." But activists acknowledged that they had a hard struggle ahead, given opposition from Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia.

"Even Singapore and Malaysia have said our demands are difficult," said Yuyun Wahyuningrum of FORUM-ASIA, a Bangkok-based regional rights lobby.

In recent drafting sessions, Indonesia and Thailand said the body should at least be able to "monitor and review" the human rights situation in every member country and make country visits, said a Southeast Asian diplomat who insisted on anonymity since he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Some other ASEAN members such as the Philippines are not backing that suggestion because they say convincing Myanmar and others to accept a human rights body is enough of a milestone, as weak as it may be, the diplomat said.

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