Asean setting up human rights body in 5 years?

29 June 2004

Southeast Asian countries are slowly moving toward establishing a regional human rights body that could be operational by 2009, a senior official said Monday.

Marzuki Darusman, a former Indonesian attorney general, said progress had been made in convening a seven-member panel of representatives from Association of Southeast Asian Nations to draw up recommendations for a future human rights mechanism.

The panel is scheduled to hold its first meeting in Bangkok in August, said Darusman, who is co-chairing the preparatory group for the regional rights body.

Human rights has long been a thorny issue in the 10-member Asean, which consists of fledgeling democracies, communist countries, authoritarian capitalist states, a military dictatorship and an absolutist monarchy.

Human rights groups complain that a long-standing agreement not to meddle in each other’s internal affairs has contributed to keeping much of Southeast Asia in the grips of undemocratic regimes.

They also accuse regional governments of using the war against terrorism as an excuse to step up political repression.

“Asean has been left behind in the respect (of human rights),” Darusman told reporters. “Europe, Africa and Latin America are all ahead of us and there is a lot of catching up to do.”

He said a human rights commission “should be formed if possible in the next five years.”

Darusman said most regional governments understood the need to create such a commission, and that progress had been made on the issue despite continuing problems such as the detention by Myanmar’s military junta of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Last year’s arrest of Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace prize in 1991, and a crackdown on her pro-democracy party have prompted international outrage.

At October’s Asean summit in Bali, the group made an unprecedented break with its doctrine of noninterference in members’ internal affairs to publicly urge Myanmar’s junta to release Suu Kyi and give her National League for Democracy party a role in drafting a new constitution.

Her continued detention is seen as an embarrassment for the region and a focus of criticism from Western governments.

The European Union recently cancelled two upcoming meetings with Asian finance and economics ministers over the issue, casting doubt on an Europe-Asia summit scheduled for October in Vietnam.

“To avoid interference from the outside, it would be best for Asean to develop its own (human rights) mechanisms,” Darusman said.

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