Proposed ASEAN charter promotes human rights, discourages coups

Associated Press
25 Jul 07

A landmark charter being drafted by Southeast Asian countries calls for promoting human rights and nonaggression, while discouraging coups in a region which has grappled with all three thorny issues.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ long-overdue charter also would try to shield the region from nuclear arms, other weapons of mass destruction and external interference, according to a draft seen by The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Diplomats have been racing against time to resolve contentious issues so the draft is ready for a “legal scrubbing” by lawyers and scrutiny of foreign ministers meeting here next week.

Southeast Asian heads of state hope to sign the covenant, which would accord ASEAN a legal personality, when they gather for their annual summit in Singapore in November, marking the 40th anniversary of the 10-member bloc’s 1967 founding.

Philippine Foreign Assistant Secretary Luis Cruz said the charter would codify many of the principles that ASEAN has observed, including a bedrock rule of noninterference in each other’s domestic affairs.

“It’ll turn ASEAN into a more rules-based organization,” Cruz said.

A touchy issue has been enshrining the protection of human rights in a region where some countries’ rights records have been spotty at best.

Myanmar, for example, has been condemned by Western governments and criticized even by fellow ASEAN members for ignoring calls to free political detainees, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and not implementing a promised roadmap to democracy.

The draft charter calls for the “respect of fundamental freedoms, the promotion and protection of human rights and the promotion of social justice.”

A Southeast Asian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media, said a high-level task force drafting the charter had not yet decided whether to include a contentious provision urging the establishment of a human rights commission.

Some ASEAN members fear such a commission could allow scrutiny of rights conditions in one country, possibly violating the group’s noninterference policy.

Rosario Manalo, who heads the task force writing the charter, has said a commission would allow ASEAN to deal with its human rights problems in its own way and parry Western criticism of problems in the region.

The charter calls for the continued observance of a 10-year-old treaty banning nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia and prohibits “all other weapons of mass destruction and interference by external powers.”

It renounces aggression and threats of force. Members would be prohibited from backing any policy or activity that would threaten a country’s sovereignty and political and economic stability.

A provision would reject unconstitutional changes of government. But some diplomats say that proposal was in danger of being stricken because some members, particularly Thailand, have heads of state who rose to power following military or public uprisings.

ASEAN was founded during the Cold War years as an anti-communist coalition, eventually evolving into a trade and political bloc. It consists of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.