ASEAN human rights body lacks power to investigate

Published by rudy Date posted on February 28, 2009

CHA-AM (AP) – Southeast Asian officials on Friday hailed the creation of a regional human rights body as a historic first step toward confronting abuses in the region, but the body will lack the power to investigate or punish violators of human rights 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.

The document was being presented behind closed-doors to ASEAN foreign ministers gathered at a coastal resort in Thailand ahead of an annual leaders summit this weekend. It is a first draft for the body’s proposed powers, with a final draft scheduled for completion in July.

The delegates are expected to devote most of their time to grappling with how the region can best cope with the global economic crisis. Although reform in Myanmar may be discussed on the sidelines of the conference, ASEAN traditionally shies away from criticism of its members.

Thailand, which currently holds ASEAN’s rotating chairmanship and is hosting the summit, bills the meeting as a turning point for the bloc.

It is the first time leaders will meet since the group signed a landmark charter in December. The document made ASEAN a legal entity and moves it a step closer toward the goal of establishing a single market by 2015 and becoming a European Union-like community.

One of the charter’s key pledges is to set up the regional human rights body. It is a landmark step and a highly controversial one for the Cold War-era bloc made up of fledgling democracies, authoritarian states, a military dictatorship and a monarchy.

“It is a historic first for Southeast Asia,” said Rosario Manalo, a senior diplomat representing the Philippines on the high-level panel that drafted the human rights body’s outline. “It marks the efforts of the region to move toward democracy.”

Officials describe the human rights body as a work in progress, saying its powers will evolve over time.

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