Sunday, 19 July 2009

ASEAN ministers agree on draft of human rights body

ASEAN foreign ministers hold a summit in a Thai resort to discuss the formation of a human rights body after recent developments in Myanmar cast a shadow over the credibility of the 10-member bloc.

PHUKET, THAILAND (JULY 19, 2009) REUTERS - Foreign Ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met in Thailand's resort island of Phuket on Sunday (July 19) to discuss the formation of a Human Rights mechanism as part of the group's charter.
Recent developments in Myanmar have been a major setback for the credibility of the 10-member bloc comprised of Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Brunei and the Philippines.

The group's principles of the Human Rights' Terms of Reference (TOR) are aiming to promote and protect the human rights in the region in line with international human rights norms and standards.

Following the meetingm, Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said that ASEAN leaders, including Myanmar's Minister of Foreign Affairs Nyan Win, have agreed on a TOR draft. They also decided to appoint independent representatives for terms of up to three years, he added.

"Today the Foreign Minister of Myanmar is present with us to have agreed on the draft Term of Reference which we will finalise the agreement by tomorrow. So I do not see any deviation from the rest of the other nine ASEAN members. I think collectively we have made the joint deliberation and joint decision in a very positive manner," Kasit told a news conference at the summit.

He said the TOR will be reviewed every five years in order to strengthen the body implementing human rights in the region.

However the body has been criticised by activists for being toothless. They have complained that it does not include independent groups and monitors able to conduct investigations in countries where human rights violations take place, especially in Myanmar.

Human rights activists have made a number of demands to change the TOR in order to beef it up and bolster the protection mechanism.

Prominent regional analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University said that the framework to make the body a success is in place, but a lot more work is needed to give it credibility to meet international standards.

"They have to have body that has teeth, that has the autonomy, the independence and the ability to do the work. If they fall short of that, then the human rights body will be ineffective and meaningless. And if that's the case, that is going to be another setback for ASEAN," he said.

Myanmar's partners in ASEAN have tried to coax reforms from the generals for the past decade but they have failed to get the junta to free political prisoners including opposition leader and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who is on trial on charges of breaching the conditions of her house arrest.

ASEAN admits the trial has hurt its image, and fears its stubborn member will damage their relations with the West, but the group is far from expelling the generals as some wish.

The TOR has been drafted as part of the implementation of Article 14 of the ASEAN Charter which came into effect in December 2008.

Once the TOR is approved by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers, the ASEAN human rights body is then expected to be formally announced at the 15th ASEAN Summit in October 2009.