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Singapore's Human Rights

Southeast Asian nations face anger over new rights body

by Martin Abbugao, AFP, 19 July 2009

PHUKET, Thailand (AFP) – Southeast Asian foreign ministers were set to endorse the region’s first ever human rights body Monday, despite criticisms that it will be toothless to tackle rogue members like Myanmar.

Officials meeting in the Thai resort island of Phuket ahead of the continent’s main security forum later this week are also expected to discuss the deadly hotel bombings in Jakarta and North Korea’s nuclear programme.

But the main focus will be on the landmark watchdog proposed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), for which ministers will agree final terms before its official launch by leaders of the bloc in October.

According to a draft seen by AFP, the rights body will lack powers to punish violators such as military-ruled Myanmar, and can at best require its 10 member nations to provide reports on their internal rights situations.

Rights groups said in a joint letter to Thailand’s foreign minister Kasit Piromya that the new body’s remit would “fall far too short of international standards” and asked to meet Kasit to discuss their points.

The rights body in its current form “may not only disappoint all peoples in ASEAN, but also risks compromising the international standing of ASEAN,” said the letter signed by Forum-Asia and Solidarity for Asian People’s Advocacy, two leading regional advocacy groups. [Jacob 69er: See my previous blogpost]

ASEAN has faced persistent criticism for failing to censure military-ruled Myanmar — the group’s so-called problem child since it joined in 1997 — for its treatment of democracy activists including detained Aung San Suu Kyi.

The ruling junta sparked fresh international outrage in May by putting the Nobel Peace laureate on trial following a bizarre incident in which an American man swam to her lakeside house.

On Sunday, Myanmar authorities arrested around 20 members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party after they had marked the anniversary of her father’s death in 1947.

But a draft of the rights body’s terms of reference affirms ASEAN’s underlying principle of non-interference in domestic affairs, which has been used by some members to fend off criticism about rights abuses.

It lists no sanctions for countries that fail to provide the required reports on their rights situations and it rejects notions of a universal standard of human rights.

The draft says the body will promote rights “within the regional context,” bearing in mind national, historical and religious difference and “taking into account the balance between rights and responsibilities.”

Kasit on Sunday admitted that there had been compromises to ensure that Myanmar signed on for the rights body, but he defended it by saying that it was still an important step for the region.

He said Myanmar had given details to fellow ASEAN nations on Sunday about the junta’s preparations for elections in 2010, including election law and the establishment of an election commission, he said.

ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan said endorsing the body would be a “good beginning.”

Human rights have been a perennial challenge for ASEAN in the 42 years since it was founded as a bulwark against the spread of communism. Its members now include an absolute monarchy, a dictatorship and two communist states.

The annual ASEAN foreign ministers meeting on Monday comes ahead of the 27-member ASEAN regional forum later this week, which groups the bloc’s members along with the United States, the EU, China, Japan and other countries.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is due in Phuket on Wednesday for talks that are likely to include the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear programme.

The twin suicide bombings at hotels in the Indonesian capital on Friday which killed eight people are also set for discussion, officials said.


Southeast Asia approves ‘toothless’ rights body
by Martin Abbugao, AFP, 20 July 2009

PHUKET, Thailand (AFP) – Southeast Asian foreign ministers endorsed the region’s first human rights watchdog Monday, rejecting criticisms that the body would be powerless to tackle rogue members such as Myanmar.

Officials also urged North Korea to return to talks on its nuclear programme and they condemned the hotel bombings in Jakarta after meeting on the Thai resort island of Phuket, ahead of Asia’s main security forum this week.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will officially launch its long-awaited rights commission at a summit in October after years of claims that it is too soft on military-ruled Myanmar and communist Vietnam and Laos.

But rights groups said the proposed watchdog lacks teeth to punish violators, has no monitoring powers and would merely make the bloc’s members provide internal reports on rights conditions inside their countries.

“It’s better to make a start than to leave this hanging with no progress at all,” Thai premier and ASEAN chairman Abhisit Vejjajiva said, shortly before officials confirmed that ministers endorsed the body at their talks on Monday.

He added that the commission would first focus on the “promotion” of human rights “and then the next step obviously once that is put into place, is that there will be more teeth for the body in terms of protection” of rights.

Myanmar has been a thorn in the side of ASEAN since it joined in 1997 because of its detention of more than 2,000 political prisoners, including pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The junta caused fresh headaches for the bloc by putting the Nobel peace laureate on trial following an incident in which an American man swam to her lakeside house in May. She faces up to five years in jail.

ASEAN has been hamstrung throughout its 42-year history by its guiding principle of non-interference in members’ internal affairs. The rights commission is being set up under a new ASEAN charter agreed in December.

Rights groups said the new body’s remit fell short of international standards.

“The human rights body is born, but it needs a lot of careful care so that it can become a mechanism with teeth and not become toothless,” Rafendi Djamin, of the regional group Solidarity for Asian People’s Advocacy, told AFP.

Splits emerged in ASEAN’s normally placid facade on Sunday as Indonesia objected to the final terms for the rights body and Myanmar protested against changes wanted by the Indonesians, diplomats said.

A statement issued by the ASEAN ministers urged Myanmar to free all detainees including Aung San Suu Kyi “thereby paving the way for genuine reconciliation and meaningful dialogue” ahead of elections planned in 2010.

The statement also urged North Korea to return to six-party talks on its weapons programme and comply with UN Security Council resolutions.

Pyongyang’s foreign minister has declined to attend Thursday’s ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Phuket, which groups 27 nations including the United States, and is sending an ambassador-at-large.

North Korea quit the talks with the US, South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan after the Security Council censured its April 5 long-range rocket launch. It staged its second nuclear test on May 25.

Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said that a five-member North Korean delegation was still coming and expressed hopes that ASEAN could help move the stalled talks forward.

The statement also vowed to step up the fight against terrorism following the bombings of the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Jakarta on Friday in which two suicide bombers killed seven people and wounded dozens more.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is due in Phuket on Wednesday for the ARF. The ASEAN statement welcomed the planned signing of a so-called treaty of amity and cooperation with the United States at the forum this week.

Thousands of police and troops remained on duty to prevent a repeat of anti-government protests that derailed an Asian summit in April.

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