ASEAN OKs rights body in charter

By Volt Contreras, Cynthia Balana
Last updated 02:05am (Mla time) 07/31/2007

MANILA, Philippines — Apparently overcoming resistance from almost half of its members, including military-ruled Burma (Myanmar), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations moved a step closer toward creating a body that would promote human rights in the politically diverse region.


Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo Monday said a “consensus” was reached in the 40th ASEAN Ministers Meeting (AMM) for the draft ASEAN charter to include a provision calling for the creation of a human rights commission.


Romulo hailed the breakthrough as “an apparent victory for the Philippines,” which is on its final days holding the rotating chairmanship of the 10-nation bloc and which also heads the high-level task force that had drafted the landmark charter.


“I am pleased to announce that among the issues on which there has been a consensus among the ASEAN foreign ministers is the inclusion of a provision in the ASEAN charter that mandates the creation of a human rights body,” Romulo said in a statement.


He said the ministers, meeting behind closed doors at the Philippine International Convention Center in Pasay City, had instructed the task force to include this provision in the draft charter.


“This is a historic decision. This is a victory for human rights,” Romulo said in a press conference later in the evening.


“We believe there must be human rights body in ASEAN,” he said, adding that it should be “functional and operational” the moment the draft charter is signed, as planned, in the next leaders’ summit in Singapore this November.


Asked whether ASEAN member countries could still have the option not to be covered by the rights body, he said “I don’t believe so” since by signing the Charter “they agreed to be bound by it.”


“They all agreed. There is no doubt they agreed,” he said.


In a joint communiqué issued last night, the ASEAN ministers also called for the “phased and calibrated withdrawal of foreign forces in Iraq” without specifying the US troops that have invaded the country to oust Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein in 2003.


The military pullout, they said, “contributes toward bringing normalcy” in the war-torn Middle East nation.


“We voiced our deep concern over the continued stability in Iraq and reaffirmed our support for the Iraqi government and its efforts to ensure unity, security, stability and prosperity in Iraq,” they added.


Details yet to be crafted


Romulo said what was agreed upon by the ministers was the “principle” of creating a human rights body, and that the terms of reference that will next be crafted on the matter will make it “more explicit” as to its function or composition.


Until Monday’s opening of the 40th AMM hosted by Manila, Burma, whose ruling junta had drawn criticism in and outside the region for its dismal human rights record, had been objecting to any mention of a human rights body in the proposed charter, according to diplomatic sources.


ASEAN’s newest members Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam — which are under authoritarian or single-party governments — had also reportedly suggested they were not yet ready for the creation of such a body.


The inclusion of the provision setting up a rights body in the charter has been one of the thorny issues debated upon by the members of the task force headed by retired Philippine Ambassador Rosario Manalo.


ASEAN’s relevance


In earlier pronouncements, Manalo said establishing a human rights commission “will keep ASEAN relevant” as it “announce(s) to the world that ASEAN honors its human rights commitments.”


Through the body, she said, ASEAN would also be able to impart to the world its “(own) regional perspective on human rights amid much monitoring from outsiders.”


A source confirmed that discussions on the human rights provision were very exhaustive at the level of the task force, with Burma being the most vocal. “But all that disappeared when it was elevated to the ministers,” the source said.


The creation of the body was mainly pushed by the human rights commissions of the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.


Until its functions are spelled out in greater detail, such a body is being widely seen as a formal venue or grievance mechanism that will hear complaints of human rights violations committed by state or non-state forces in the region.


ASEAN has been criticized for being too soft on members with questionable human rights record, particularly Burma, which has been strongly censured for its slow moves to restore democracy and the continued house arrest of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.


Until Sunday, diplomats had said that Burma and some other countries had blocked the establishment of the commission.


Debate on consensus


Member states have also battled over whether to abandon their policy of operating on consensus in favor of taking decisions by vote — a move which would also amount to forcing individual countries to abide by group rules.


Romulo admitted that the task force had yet to iron out the voting issue.


On the issue of sanctions to be imposed against erring members, Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said the AMM decided to refer the matter to the ASEAN leaders.


“The leaders have a committee of peers to decide on their own method of coming into decision,” he said.


Yeo said he was “very optimistic” that there would be an ASEAN charter by November.


Some ASEAN countries fear any scrutiny of their human rights record, and the group has traditionally held to a cardinal policy of noninterference in each other’s affairs. Human rights groups have complained that this noninterference principle has fostered undemocratic governments in the region.


At their annual meeting, the foreign ministers were also expected to tackle terrorism, better enforcement of a regional antinuclear treaty, disaster management and ways to help poorer members catch up with wealthier ones to foster faster economic integration.

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